VIOLENT RETURN TO A TROUBLED PAST

The California oil town had a history of Klan-inspired turmoil before a lynch mob drove out the only blacks—13 local junior college athletes
June 22, 1975

Tucked away in the southwest corner of California's long San Joaquin Valley, the community of Taft sits atop an ocean of oil called the Midway-Sunset field, which produced its billionth barrel seven years ago and is still gushing along. Bigger than the dusty hamlet in The Last Picture Show but smaller than the city in American Graffiti, Taft, with its more than 20 churches and its like number of cinderblock, windowless bars, could be mistaken for any one of a thousand other places were it not for the oil rigs bobbing up and down like giant grasshoppers right outside the city limits. But more than just oil is hidden beneath that small-town-America surface in Taft. There is also an under-current of bigotry, violence and fear.

The Ku Klux Klan, which spread its poison in the West just as it did in other parts of the country, had an active chapter in Taft, not many years after the town's name was changed from Moron. In the early 1920s people were flogged with knotted ropes, tarred and feathered, and ordered out of town by hooded vigilantes, some of whom turned out to be sheriff's deputies. One Klansman was sent to San Quentin prison, but was later retried and acquitted. Another, who said he was proud of the KKK and was kept in public office, has a nearby landmark, Mount Abel, named for him. In fact, Taft long had a reputation as a Jim Crow town that required blacks to leave by dusk.

Among some local troublemakers, the hatred has not simmered down. On a recent weekend 13 Taft College black athletes—the only blacks in town—were driven out by a lynch mob. A white man suffered a shotgun wound in his neck, more than 20 white students were so intimidated that they left school before final exams were over, and the editor of the local newspaper was beaten up. This is the story of how the spirit of the Klan rode again in Taft.

With a full-time enrollment of about 400, Taft College is one of the smallest junior colleges in the state. Although the school draws most of its students from the town and nearby Maricopa, Taft's athletic teams are members of a strong league. One of the ways they stay reasonably competitive is by bringing in out-of-area athletes, many of them black, recruited by Taft alumni from as far away as Brooklyn, Miami and Altoona, Pa. Taft is one of the few California JCs that offers dormitory rooms and free textbooks to its students, and it has a minor reputation for sending athletes on to bigger things. Willie Crittendon, a black tackle from Alabama, was named Citizen of the Year in 1967 by the Taft District Chamber of Commerce and went on to star at the University of Tulsa. Jim Krieg, a white football player from New York, played at Taft before he became Sonny Sixkiller's favorite receiver at the University of Washington.

Taft had a poor 1-8 record in football last season, but there have been some moments of glory. The Cougars won the 1966 Wool Bowl in Roswell, N. Mex. Taft once finished No. 3 among the nation's JCs, and the school has turned out many more JC All-Americas than might be expected for a college its size.

There have been incidents of racism in town in recent years, most of them threatening phone calls or verbal abuse from the lunatic fringe. Two coeds from Thailand were frightened by nasty comments hurled at them on the city's streets and thereafter stuck to the campus or the nearby shopping center. Many of the blacks on the football team quit school in the middle of last season after a dispute with Athletic Director-Coach Tom Harrell and his staff, but that disagreement had nothing to do with the ugly events of Sunday, May 25.

There had been a rumor in Taft that a white girl was pregnant by one of the blacks. (After the events of late May, a black football player confirmed that the rumor was true, and added that he and others had tried to talk the girl into having an abortion, but she had refused.) Talk of the pregnancy may or may not have set off the explosion, but the sight of blacks socializing with white girls had caused smoldering resentment. On Friday night, May 23, black basketball player Joe Williams, a student from Los Angeles, was at the Sno-White drive-in on Center Street with a visiting black girl friend. A white man threw a beer bottle at them which missed by a wide margin. Williams and the girl left and drove to Bakersfield, 40 miles away.

At about five the following Sunday afternoon police were called to break up a dispute on Center Street between a large group of whites and three blacks, football player Joe Rhone of Fort Wayne, Ind., football-basketball player Jerry Cooper of Las Vegas and Dennis King, a visitor from Bakersfield College. A little more than an hour later, when Rhone and his two friends left his apartment to walk to the school, Rhone was carrying a pool-cue case containing a loaded, sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun. The three later told police that they had suddenly found themselves hemmed in by several carloads of screaming assailants. They escaped, but were surrounded again a few moments later in the 500 block of Seventh Street. A fight erupted and Rhone says he sustained a knife wound in his hand. It was then that he began using his pool-cue case as a club. As Rhone swung the case, the shotgun discharged, seriously wounding a 22-year-old white named Doug Henry in the neck.

The three blacks escaped to the one-story college dormitory located just a few blocks down Seventh Street past Taft Union High School and were picked up there by the police. Rhone was later booked at the Bakersfield jail on suspicion of attempted murder and one white youth was arrested for disturbing the peace.

Shortly after the shooting, 40 to 60 angry white men converged on the dorm yelling, "Kill the niggers!" A handful of blacks who had not gone elsewhere for the weekend hid in the recreation room near the lobby while football-baseball player Craig Tinson of Sacramento, Calif. stepped out to try to reason with the mob. Tinson, an articulate freshman, had just been elected Student Activities Coordinator for next fall, but the crowd was not interested in listening to his speech. He was chased across Emmons Park Drive toward the Westside Shopping Center. Tinson's superior conditioning and running speed were all that allowed him to survive what he later described as "the scariest time in my life."

Before Tinson could be cornered, a white football teammate picked him up in a car and drove him to the police station for his own protection. Police soon broke up the crowd that had remained and continued to yell threats in front of the dorm. The few black students still trapped inside were taken to the station in protective custody. The police suggested—but did not demand—that the blacks allow themselves to be escorted to Bakersfield, and the students agreed, most of them indicating they would return home rather than risk going back to the school. Four blacks who had gone away for the weekend were called by friends and told that they had better stay where they were. Steve Maston, an excellent running back from nearby Wasco, did not get the word, and he drove back to school Sunday night. He was chased by three cars carrying a total of five white men but managed to escape.

The town's 4,000-circulation newspaper, the Daily Midway Driller, ran a subdued account of the incidents that was written by Editor Dennis McCall. McCall, a tall, skinny 33-year-old who is growing a beard for Taft's "Oildorado" celebration coming up in October, is a third-generation Taftian. His grandfather, Red, was an oil driller in the Midway-Sunset field, and his father, Jack, worked in the oil fields for 33 years until his retirement. Jack McCall is now a night supervisor in the college dorm. Dennis McCall, who is also president of the college Booster Club, published an editorial on the near lynching in his paper:

"What happened here last Sunday is a sickening reminder of our earlier days when a local faction of the Ku Klux Klan tried to force this city to accept its version of 'justice.'

"Evidently, the national tragedies of the last decade have taught some of us very little. The ideal of equal rights means nothing when ignorance and superstition prevail.

"This is 1975, not 1920, and still a crowd is able to force black residents to leave Taft in fear of their lives. There are strong indications this group does not intend to stop there either...."

Unfortunately, McCall was right. On Tuesday night a pickup truck cruised by the dormitory. Since the blacks' departure, "nigger-loving" white students at the college had become targets for verbal abuse. This time someone in a crowd of white students standing outside the dorm foolishly yelled out a challenge. McCall was among the group and decided he had better cross the street and get away from the impending confrontation. That, too, was a mistake. The truck backed up and out jumped Rick Riddick, 22, who chased after McCall yelling, "Hey, you're the bleep-bleep we're after. You're the nigger-lover that put that article in the paper."

Riddick caught McCall, threw him against a car with enough force to put a dent in it, knocked him down with a punch to the left temple and continued to pound him while he was on the ground. The college students later told McCall they could not come to his aid because a man in the back of the truck was holding a gun on them.

For the next few nights McCall and his wife lived with the fear that someone would fire-bomb their house. They slept with a softball bat and a fire extinguisher at the side of their bed, but refused a friend's offer of a gun. Nonetheless, McCall had the courage to press charges against Riddick, a shop foreman who had lost his job because of publicity about the incident. Riddick turned conciliatory later in the week and beseeched the editor to drop the case. Remembering the viciousness of the attack and still feeling the bruises, McCall refused. Riddick pleaded guilty to assault and battery, was fined $250 and was ordered to pay for repairs to both McCall and the dented car. He probably would have been jailed as well, but McCall requested that Riddick only be put on probation, because he had a wife and two children. The judge agreed.

Riddick quickly found a job in the oil fields and insisted that the judge's decision to go along with the editor's request for leniency was proof that he had been "screwed."

"Hell, it wasn't nothin' but a fistfight, and I got fired from my job," Riddick said. "He told 'em not to put me in jail, and when someone has that much stroke, you know what that can do."

By the end of that week Henry, who is unemployed and was described by Taft police as a constant troublemaker, was recovering from his gunshot wound in a Bakersfield hospital. Rhone was released from jail after the authorities had decided that he had been carrying an unconcealed, legal weapon that had fired accidentally, and that he had acted in self-defense. Rhone's shotgun was not returned to him, however. And the college issued a statement:

"The Taft College community is genuinely concerned about the events of Sunday evening that resulted in the forced departure of all black students from our campus and community.

"The ideal of this country is freedom and equality for all. We of this college resolve that each student must be treated with fairness and understanding.

"We appreciate the support which the community has given Taft College in the past, and we ask that the community continue to help us maintain an atmosphere in which all students may pursue an education without fear."

Police Chief Walter McKee had thought that once the blacks were out of town, he and his eight officers could go back to their regular job of breaking up barroom brawls. "Taft is notorious rough country," he said. "This is an oil town. Heck, we have a dozen fights some nights."

Gary Lundahl, the head basketball coach and an assistant football coach at the college, remembers going into a bar called the Brass Rail early in his stay in Taft. "I thought I'd go down Center Street there, stop in a bar and have a beer," he says. "I walked in and sat down. Two or three beers later somebody got mad at somebody else and they walked outside to fight.

"The whole place just emptied out. The bartender said, 'Your drinks!' and everybody just lined up their drinks as they walked out. I thought, 'Evidently, they must do this all the time!' "

But Lundahl insists that almost all the trouble in Taft is caused by only a few people. "They're a bunch of thugs," he says. "They've been beating up on whites for years. Nobody does much about it."

The thugs, some unemployed, some oil-field workers, some possibly on dope, have their favorite hangouts. The Sno-White drive-in at the west end of Center Street attracts some of them, as does an abandoned gas station a few blocks away. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous bars, at least one of which has plywood where its windows used to be, because the glass was broken so frequently during brawls.

"The town rednecks sweat all day in the fields and come home to see these black kids playing football and getting a free education," said a school official. "They are outclassed in their own town and they can't take it."

It is obviously not easy for blacks to live in that atmosphere. A black family that moved in and opened a small restaurant remained only about a year. The college's only black coed this year, who was a cheerleader, lasted one semester and took a job in San Francisco.

One problem is Taft's isolation. There is no bus service in or out on Sundays or holidays. The black athletes at the college, almost all of whom are from far bigger cities, have nothing to do but hang around the campus or walk to the Recreation Center not far from the Brass Rail. Most Sundays some of them eat lunch or dinner at Mrs. Bonnie Beaty's home at the opposite end of Center Street from the Sno-White.

Mrs. Beaty is married to a half-Filipino, half-Caucasian, and she has heard her share of racial slurs. "Yes, there's definitely a very large element of racism in Taft," she says. "Because Taft has always been all white, there is not only racism, but there is just no idea of any other way to live. They have never been exposed to ethnic minorities in any great number.

"There definitely is a good element in town. We have never been forced before this to stand up and take a poll of where each individual stands, so I could not speak with any accuracy as to whether the good element is the majority or the minority.

"It's been said in the last five years tensions have grown here, and I think probably they have increased because before then it was not thought of for a black to date a white. In Taft it's still a taboo. Interracial dating—not even necessarily dating, just boys and girls going someplace together in an interracial group—will upset people."

Last week in Taft there were signs that the decent citizens might be sufficiently aroused to stand up to the neo-Klansmen, and not let the college and the town become even more sno-white. The City Council asked for a Kern County grand-jury investigation. And Angel M. Alderete of the U.S. Justice Department's San Francisco office will be sending in a community-relations team.

"Law enforcement officials and interested folks are going to see that this doesn't happen again," Alderete said after a visit to Taft. "If the city and the school need to develop a contingency plan for reintegration, we will be available to help them."

And Alderete indicated he would meet with the young white Taft toughs. "I think they should be aware we are there and that, according to the Constitution and the laws of the country, this is not going to be allowed," he said.

There was a petition being passed around Taft last week asking that "the small group of radicals who in the past have threatened the students and upset the entire community" be punished.

Coaches Harrell and Lundahl were encouraged and began getting in touch with their black athletes to discuss their coming back. Word came from Miami that Rudolph Henderson, a running back, and his teammate Keith Mitchell would return to study and compete in football and track. And two more Miami athletes, one black and one white, were going to come with them.

Basketball defensive standout Joe Williams of Los Angeles, Marvin Williams, a football and basketball player from Wasco, and Thomas Jefferson, a basketball player from L.A., have summer jobs working in the oil fields not far from Taft. They visited Lundahl last week, indicated that they probably will return next fall, and received a loan from the Booster Club to tide them over until their first paychecks come through. According to Lundahl and Harrell, some others have said they would not let "a bunch of rednecks" keep them out.

"Whether it's been a death blow or birth pangs, I don't know," says Mrs. Beaty. "I pray it's a good beginning."

There remains the question of whether petitions and community-relations teams can do anything to bring reason to the barroom brawlers and bigots. Tinson said from his home that he is transferring to Sacramento City College. "I don't think any black should report to Taft anymore," he said. "How can they guarantee our safety?"

"They're not ready for it," added Rhone, who is home in Indiana and says he is trying to get a scholarship to Ohio State, even though he had not played much at Taft and had quit the team.

"I don't think it will be safe for me or any other black person in Taft for at least a couple of years," said Steve Blackburn, a tennis player from Sacramento. "Those who cause trouble just won't let up."

From his hospital bed in Bakersfield, Doug Henry agreed: "If they come back—and I'm not trying to stir things up because I'm out of it—somebody is going to get killed."

PHOTO PHOTONow working in the oil fields, Taft College athletes Marvin Williams, Joe Williams and Thomas Jefferson visited their coach last week and said they may come back in the fall. PHOTOEditor McCall spoke out and was beaten up. PHOTOIncidents began at this aptly named drive-in.

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