President Bill Clinton recently granted a pardon clearing the name of Freddie Meeks, an 80-year-old black man convicted of mutiny in a 1944 wartime incident with racial overtones. Meeks' presidential pardon was among 37 granted in a traditional Christmas practice. Five of the pardons were for crimes involving the illegal importing or sale of marijuana.
Meeks, as a navy seaman second class, was at the Port Chicago munitions base near San Francisco on July 17, 1944, when a huge explosion killed 320 men, most of them African- American sailors who were loading ammunition onto ships. It was the worst U.S. home-front disaster of the Second World War. Black sailors were ordered after the accident to pick up the pieces of dismembered bodies, then resume loading.
Meeks was among 50 who refused and were court-martialed, found guilty of mutiny by an all-white jury and put in prison. Meeks was sentenced to a 15-year term and completed 17 months of it.
Congress directed the Pentagon to review the case in 1994 because of continuing questions about the event, which occurred when the navy was segregated. But the navy concluded "the convictions were not tainted by racial prejudice" and declined to expunge them.
Clinton Petitioned In May
Lawyers for Meeks, who has had two coronary bypass operations, filed a petition for a presidential pardon in May, arguing that their client and others did not intend to mutiny. In a statement issued by his Washington lawyer, Meeks said, "I am deeply grateful to President Clinton for granting me a pardon. I believe the pardon recognizes that the ... sailors were wrongfully prosecuted and convicted for mutiny."
Brian Busey, Meeks' attorney, said, "President Clinton's granting of a pardon helps bring closure to a shameful episode
in U.S. history.
Meeks' case gained additional attention because of a March television movie about it, "Mutiny".
"After reviewing all of the circumstances ... the president believed he was deserving of a pardon," White House spokesman
Joe Lockhart said.
In his statement of clemency, Clinton noted that after Meeks' release he honorably completed his service, received an honorable discharge "and thereafter returned to civilian life, where he quickly established himself as a stable, law-abiding and productive citizen". Meeks is one of two men among the 50 originally court-martialed known to still be alive. The other declined to join his lawsuit.
The pardon was another step in a campaign by Clinton to correct past instances of government racism.
In May 1997 he apologized on behalf of all Americans to a group of poor black men whose syphilis went untreated for years as part of study carried out by the public health service in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Last February he posthumously pardoned Lt. Henry Flipper, a former slave who became the army's first black commissioned officer and was dishonorably discharged on a racially motivated charge in 1882. American Lawyer magazine quoted Meeks last July as saying that while a pardon would not erase his conviction, it would still mean a lot. "That would show me that we really weren't guilty, that we only did something we thought was right," he said. - (By Steve Holland, Reuters)