Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

ROBERT PRICE: For the Anthonys, it's about Jesus but also about justice

The outrage still wells up in Pastor Ralph Anthony’s voice more than half a century later. The pain, the disbelief, the discouragement.

July 23, 1969, should have been a day of satisfied calm. The Black community of Bakersfield hadn’t cleared any historic civil rights hurdles, but that spring there’d been this: The City Council had agreed to fund and sponsor a center for Black youths at a fraternal hall on East California Avenue — a place for teens to gather, play games, stay out of trouble. Anthony had participated in the grand opening celebration just a few days before.

It had been hot that day, of course — July in Bakersfield — and by 7 p.m. the afternoon’s 105 had softened only to 97. Anthony, 28, had left his office after a long, exhausting day and, though he was tired, he drove over to the youth center just to see how everything was going.

“I said to myself, ‘It looks like everything is OK, I'm gonna go home and get some rest,’” Anthony said. A couple of hours later, his phone rang.

“I was awakened to find out the Bakersfield police had declared an unlawful assembly at the youth center,” Anthony said, incredulity still evident in his raspy, 80-year-old voice. “They told the children — who’d not had time to call their parents to pick them up — that they’d declared it an unlawful assembly.

“And they maced the kids, man — pepper-sprayed them and cursed them. And some of those they sprayed were the youth leaders that went before the City Council to talk about establishing the center. So all the parents trusted the situation, as I did. But the police needed some training for riot control and they chose to do it at the youth center that we had just established.”

The Bakersfield Police Department has worked hard in recent years, sincerely hard by most accounts, to win the trust and support of the Black community, and they’ve made inroads. The BPD navigated the challenges of a particularly volatile 2020 with remarkable restraint and dexterity, avoiding disaster or controversy despite having had plenty of chances to step in it: Civil rights marches, escalating political confrontation, record levels of violent crime and general public angst, all while processing change at top leadership positions.

But, as we commemorate the country's first Black History Month since the death of George Floyd, and all that that galling event precipitated from coast to coast, it seems worthwhile to remember another moment in race relations, almost 52 years ago, that has impacted generations of Black people in Bakersfield, even if the details have been forgotten by most.

Most, that is, besides the friends and colleagues of the Rev. Ralph Anthony and his brother the Rev. Oscar Anthony, who’ve been involved in community building, in one sense or another, since before they could shave. They came by their sense of justice honestly. Their parents, the Rev. Lee and Mrs. Ica Ola Anthony, brought their brood west shortly after the war from Natchitoches Parish, La., where Ralph was born, to the projects of San Francisco, where Oscar was born, and then to southeast Bakersfield, where they founded what would become St. Peter Restoration Community Christian Ministries — first in a Creole tent with sawdust floors and wooden benches, then in the family home, then, finally, in a handsome church building at 510 E. Brundage Ave., the ministry’s home since 1988. Oscar Anthony, 73, is the lead pastor; Ralph, seven years his senior, teaches, preaches and, until this year, was a trustee for the Bakersfield City School District.

They’ve always believed in the village style of child rearing; it worked for them and those closest to them.

“Two things happened to keep you out of trouble as a kid,” said Ron Littlejohn, a St. Peter’s parishioner who grew up on what was then Lakeview Avenue, in the heart of southeast Bakersfield’s African-American community. “Everybody knew your dad, or you knew that they knew your dad. ... Everybody’s dad was your dad back in the day, including Rev. (Lee) Anthony. I was kind of scared of him.”

The elder Rev. Anthony’s sons maintained good humor through all that hands-on raising, as still evidenced by their tendency to laugh hard, loud and often, and despite having seen justice so often denied.

And, in that 1969 incident, they saw justice denied in two distinct ways.

•••

Among the 15 police officers who descended that night on the youth center was one Officer Stephen Powers, a BPD veteran of not yet three years. Powers had left the teaching profession to follow in the footsteps of his father, Robert Powers, a onetime railroad detective who served as the city’s chief of police from 1933 to 1946. After his retirement from the BPD, Chief Powers had been appointed state law enforcement coordinator by California Attorney General Robert W. Kenny and in that role had established one of the earliest training programs for police on matters of race relations.

Twenty years later, he was back in Bakersfield, right in the middle of a classic race-relations case study — and his white son was the star witness, or star turncoat, depending on one’s point of view.

That night, Officer Powers observed what he considered to be an overly robust response to a public disturbance call that caused the situation to unnecessarily escalate. His big mistake: Saying so.

As he began dictating his incident report later that night, as Powers told The Californian in October 1969, the secretary interjected: None of the other officers, she said, were describing the same kind of situation.

"Most of the other reports indicated some kind of provocation for the beatings," Powers told the newspaper, "and right away I realized there were lies in the reports." No one else mentioned, for example, five officers’ beating of a single, unarmed teen.

Powers decided to write a report full of generalities and vague recollections, he said. It was returned with the notation, "Justify all actions and explain all actions taken."

"I knew if I wrote a true report I would be harassed and fired. I knew it would be the end of my job,” Powers said. He never updated his report. Instead, on Aug. 4, he submitted a letter of resignation to BPD Chief Jack Towle.

“Then I heard from friends in the department that the chief of police had called the officers into his office and told them how they should write their reports. One of the things they were supposed to say (for example) was, ‘I hit so-and-so over the head and he fell down on the sidewalk, losing his teeth.’”

Seven people were arrested that night, most of them minors. Powers testified at the trial of three of them — Black youths accused of failure to disperse and resisting arrest that night.

Powers then left the courtroom with Ralph Anthony, who was then the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. They drove to Robert Powers’ home, outside the city limits, followed closely by a BPD patrol car and a motorcycle officer. The officers parked next to each other outside the house and waited.

What followed, the elder Powers later told The Fresno Bee, was "an obvious harassment."

Robert Powers took his son out for a drive and the two police units followed.

"They stopped me, with the red light and a honk of the horn, and informed me I was to be detained until they could get a subpoena for my son,” Robert Powers told The Bee. “I asked if I was under arrest. They said no, so I drove off."

The two police units followed and pulled the car over a second time, this time blocking it, front and back, and the officers told the former police chief he was under arrest for failing to stop for a red light. They were held until a representative of the District Attorney's Office, escorted by a police captain and two sergeants, one of whom had been in charge of the anti-riot force that night in July, arrived and served a subpoena on Steve Powers.

The next morning, a judge quashed the subpoena without any opposition from the DA’s office, which admitted the entire effort had been an ill-advised mistake. Steve Powers, after all, had just testified in a court of law and been released by the judge after the prosecution team had run out of questions for him. What more could they want? That was clear enough to Steve Powers.

A few weeks later, he moved to Arizona, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. and became an educator, therapist and counselor.

Robert Powers, who moved to Arizona as well, continued to write on race relations and spirituality before his death in 1976.

Ralph Anthony continued to communicate with Steve Powers for years, but recently lost contact with his friend.

The 1969 incident remains a life touchstone for the Bakersfield minister, a gauge of the progress of race relations.

Progress that sometimes seems like one step forward, two steps back.

“This is a good time to rebuild what we’ve lost from the past,” Anthony said. “I wish we could be further on in the community and in the world, but this is where we are. But we can still learn how to make it right. We can still understand our responsibilities to each other and do the right thing.”

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here Sundays. Reach him at RobertPrice@KGET.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.