Under the Dome Today: Righting Historical Wrongs

by John Lawrence

Rosa Parks “returned” to a place of honor under the Dome today in a ceremony unveiling her statue, which will be on permanent display in the Capitol. She had previously been honored in October, 2005, when she was the first woman, and one of a handful of individuals lacking military or elected service, to lay in state or repose in the Capitol’s Rotunda.

Today’s ceremony, attended by President Obama and congressional leaders as well as many prominent civil rights activists, comes during Black History Month and just weeks after the 100th anniversary of Ms. Parks’ birth in the segregated South. Defying the mores and statutes of segregation in 1955 was dangerous business when she refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus; there was no assurance that Ms. Parks’ defiance of the law in Alabama would have a more peaceful outcome than the lynching that ended the life of young Emmett Till just months earlier.

Of course, most who endured the tyranny of racial discrimination or risked their lives in the battle for equal rights remain anonymous to history. Part of the greatness of this country is that, in spite of the tragic record of slavery and segregation, we are able to confront these legacies and correct wrongs, even if long after the fact and grossly inadequately.

Fourteen years ago last week, President Bill Clinton took such a long-overdue step and issued a pardon to the late Col. Henry O. Flipper, a former slave who in 1877 became the first African American to graduate from West Point. Flipper, a decorated Army officer, was wrongly charged with pilfering from Army accounts and drummed out of the Army in disgrace. His prosecution has long been recognized by historians as having been attributable to racism, not inappropriate behavior.

Later in 1999, at the request of Congressman George Miller (D-CA), Clinton also pardoned the African American sailor Pvt. Freddie Meeks for his wrongful mutiny conviction in 1944 following the devastating ammunition explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine near Concord, California. Both actions by Clinton helped address a longstanding act of discrimination against blacks who risked their lives in defense of the nation, only to fall victim to the pernicious racism of their time.

Clinton deserves great credit for reaching back into the historical record and helping to address these past abuses. But the anniversary of the Flipper pardon, together with today’s dedication of the Parks statue, are timely reminders that righting these past wrongs, and correcting the historical record, is an unfinished and ongoing process. President Obama should now extend similar Executive Clemency to the other 49 sailors who, like Meeks, were so wrongly mistreated by the military they selflessly served.

When Rep. Miller (on whose staff I worked at the time) began peeling back the decades of concealment about the Port Chicago explosion and subsequent mutiny trial, the story had been all but forgotten by historians, despite the involvement of luminaries like Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt,. Few were aware of its role in accelerating the decision to desegregate the military four years later. As a result of the congressional hearings and the creation of a new feature of the national park system at the site, the incidents surrounding Port Chicago have become the subject of books, movies, and numerous websites.

But the Port Chicago story is far from over. In addition to Mr. Meeks, 49 other men were railroaded into convictions and prison in a racially prosecution. Neither the sailors, many of whom lived in fear of their convictions becoming public for the rest of their lives, nor the Navy pressed for reviews of the cases for decades. Many of the men went to their graves without telling even their family members of their involvement in the alleged mutiny.

As the years have passed and the scholarship on the case has become more substantial, it is clear that a severe miscarriage of justice occurred in that Treasure Island courtroom. Yes, there are formalistic excuses why it is difficult but not (as illustrated by the Flipper case) impossible to grant posthumous pardons. As White House Counsel demonstrated during Miller’s effort to secure a pardon for Freddie Meeks, sometimes justice requires that we look past the formal procedure and do what is right, and overdue.

In the veteran’s cemetery in San Bruno, California, there are several tombstones for people killed in the Port Chicago explosion on July 17, 1944. The tombstones have no names carved on them; those who lie below are anonymous. The men who faced dishonorable discharge and prison following the explosion are nearly as anonymous, but they need be no longer. Their names are well documented, as are the wrongs they suffered. What a great step it would be if President Obama were to grant each a pardon from the nation they served.