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."