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Albert Parker

Negro Sailors Ousted for Protest

13 Discharged; 2 Face Navy Trial

Seamen Who Exposed Vicious Jim Crow In Navy Get
“Undesirable” Discharges “For the Good of the Service”

(14 December 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 50, 14 December 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Rear Admiral Nimitz, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department, last week finally told what had happened to the fifteen Negro sailors on the U.S.S. Philadelphia who had written a letter protesting Jim Crow conditions in the Navy.

Nimitz announced, in an interview with P.L. Prattis, Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, that 13 of the sailors had been kicked out of the Navy with “undesirable” discharges, and that the other two were still in the brig, probably being held for even more drastic action.

The commanding officer of the Philadelphia, after the, boys’ letter had been printed in the Courier on Oct. 5, had placed them all under arrest. He had then forced them all to write statements, telling why they had signed the letter and who had suggested it.

This was obviously a move to find out who was the “brains” behind the letter.

When he had these letters, the commanding officer filed charges against the boys and recommended to the Navy Department that they be court-martialed.

He charged them with violating sub-paragraph 7 of Article 8 of Chapter 1 of the Articles of War, which reads:

“Or joins in or abets any combination to weaken the lawful authority of or to lessen the respect due to his commanding officer.”

In addition to this charge was another “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

Dangerous Precedent

In other words, if a Negro sailor signs a letter saying he is being Jim Crowed and doesn’t like it, he is “joining a combination to weaken the lawful authority of his commanding officer”!

If he writes to the people outside of the Navy and asks to help put an end to the policy that permits Negroes to become only mess attendants and cooks, then he is guilty of “lessening the respect due his commanding officer”!

That, at least, is the viewpoint of the officer caste that runs the ships and every day violates the law passed by Congress that prohibits discrimination in the armed forces against any person because of race or color.

The commanding officer wanted them court-martialed. But the Bureau of Navigation takes a lighter view of the matter. It agrees that this action is almost as bad as a mutiny, but doesn’t feel it wise to have the mess boys hanged from the yard-arm.

So the Bureau over-ruled the recommendation of the highly respected officer and gave orders for thirteen of the boys to be transferred to the receiving station nearest their homes and there given “undesirable” discharges. (A discharge of this nature differs from a dishonorable discharge in that it does not deprive the man of his civil rights. It is a discharge, as the Navy officers call it, “for the good of the service.”)

The other two men are still in jail, which would indicate that the commanding officer decided that they had “instigated” the letter, and that Admiral Nimitz has accepted the recommendation of the commanding officer that they be court-martialed.

But the case would not be closed even if all the men had been set free. Indeed, the fight must go on as long as the officer caste controls military training and has the power to Jim Crow Negroes.

This was indicated also by the Courier in its issue of December 7 in the story entitled Here Are Six More ‘Chambermaids’ You Can Fire, Rear Admiral Nitmitz, which contained another letter, from a group of six Negro sailors of the U.S.S. Davis, stationed at San Diego. California.

This letter, which is the sixth signed by groups of mess attendants on as many different ships in the Navy in the last two months, tells the same story that the others did, of segregation,, brutal discrimination and vicious punishment for any “back-talk.”

Unfortunately, like the others, the authors of this letter, while they demonstrate great courage in signing their names, make the mistake of urging as a solution “that the Negro youth of America ... cease to enlist in the U.S. Navy.”

As we have indicated in our pamphlet, Defend The Negro Sailors of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, such a policy will not solve the problem because it is ineffective in the face of conscription: because it will not help the 4,000 Negro sailors, already in the Navy; and because it does not take into consideration the need for military training of all kinds by the oppressed Negro people and the working class, if they are to be able to defeat their enemies.

The latest developments in the Philadelphia case point once again to the need for the Negro people to join in the struggle for a system of military training under the control of the trade unions – take control and power out of the hands of the Jim Crow and anti-labor officers and put it in the hands of the workers themselves.

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Last updated: 14 November 2020