SI Vault
Joe Jares
June 23, 1975
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
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June 23, 1975

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

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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."

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