Congressman Mark DeSaulnier on Congressional Efforts to Exonerate the Port Chicago 50

"They never should have been charged. They were innocent."

On August 13, 2022, East Bay Black Employee Collective Co-Founder Yulie Padmore interviewed U.S. Representative Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA 11th District) about current congressional efforts to exonerate the Port Chicago 50. Below is the original video and transcript.

Padmore: What is the current outlook for exoneration of the Port Chicago 50 through Congress?

Rep. DeSaulnier: We have [an exoneration measure included] in a bill in the Senate. It passed out of the House, so we're just hoping. We've tried this multiple times. My predecessor [U.S. Representative George Miller] has tried it in different variations, but this is a real simple directive: They're exonerated. The federal government in statute says they're exonerated.

Senator Padilla and Senator Feinstein as California's representatives are working diligently to keep it in the bill when it's approved and we go for the President's signature. This bill is the Defense Reauthorization Bill (NDAA). That's allowed by our process in the Parliamentarian because it falls to the Defense Department acknowledging their mistake. We are hopeful.

Having said that, we just have to stay after it because we've been through this before and, unfortunately, there are people who don't agree with us.

There is much talk recently about the orders to load munitions and how the unsafe conditions were actually below federally-mandated safety standards. The conclusion being that orders to load munitions were unlawful because they violated U.S. Code and Navy regulations. This would make the sailors innocent of refusing lawful orders. In your opinion, is this breakthrough something that could benefit exoneration efforts?

It was an unlawful order even then. Unfortunately, these sailors didn't have the ability to question that order and they were condemned for it. They never should have been charged. They were innocent. They certainly were not guilty of anything close to mutiny by the statutes of that day. It's striking. Thurgood Marshall, as a private citizen from the NAACP, said this when he came to defend them and give them advice.

It's just an extreme example, unfortunately, of the history of racism in this country [and] right here in the Bay Area. That's part of our initiative here: A great country should acknowledge its mistakes. And this was a huge mistake. As Justice [Thurgood] Marshall said before he was a Supreme Court Justice, in another case, said he's here to defend not just people like this, he's here to defend the spirit and the letter of the law in our founding documents – in the Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence. So that's what exonerating the Port Chicago 50 is about, is acknowledging that people ignored the statute, this was racist, and we're acknowledging that happened. And that's how we heal from those things as a great country.

"A great country should acknowledge its mistakes. And this was a huge mistake."

In your opinion, why have the Port Chicago 50 not been exonerated by the Navy?

There are a lot of reasons, partially because we still have endemic racism in our country and that's okay to acknowledge. It's not okay that it happens, but it's a healthy way to approach it.

There's another issue about reparations, which we've had honest conversations about how I feel about that, but that's not what we are asking for, nor is this a slippery slope. This is just accepting what should be obvious to anyone: they never should have been charged in the first place. ⋆