Decades before Rachel Dolezal, there was Mark Stebbins in a Stockton scandal

In the 1980s, the racial identity of Stockton Councilman Mark Stebbins was the key issue in a recall election

Rachel Dolezal's story is not new. This has all happened before — three decades ago, in an epic city council battle in California that has long faded from public memory.

A light-skinned public figure who claimed to be black turned out to have white parents. A feisty council race turned into a national curiosity as reporters flocked to cover an unexpected breach in America's unwritten racial rules.

The Dolezal case has sparked often passionate debate over identity, privilege and, in lighthearted moments, the proper deployment of a hair weave. She quit as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., after her parents outed her as white.

In Stockton in 1983, the protagonist was Mark Stebbins, a man with white parents who called himself black, who ran for City Council against a black man named White.

Stebbins was an unusual figure even during a strange time for Stockton in the mid-1980s, a blue-collar town down on its luck with a fading white majority.

"The people walking around downtown Stockton are not wearing Guess jean jackets and Reebok tennis shoes or sipping Perrier," the Los Angeles Times said in a piece about Stockton's "inferiority complex on a rampage," as a headline put it. "These men and women look like a multiracial cast for 'The Grapes of Wrath.' There is a lot of hard work and hard living cut into their faces."

Into this milieu stepped Stebbins, a former civil rights activist who had moved from San Francisco and ran community gardens to benefit lower-income Stockton residents.

Stebbins' first wife was white, but his second and third wives were black. By the time he decided to try his hand at the council for one of the city's most diverse and underprivileged districts, he said, he had come to feel as though he were black.

During the election, Stebbins, an NAACP member, didn't exactly run around calling himself black, he said this week. On the race portion of the 1970 census form, he wrote "human."

"The idea of race has never had any scientific validity," said Stebbins, now a U-Haul business owner and a construction contractor. "It's akin to the notion held during the Middle Ages that the world was flat. So it's a widely held belief that really doesn't exist, except as a belief."

Stebbins' race emerged as a point of contention at a political meeting, where one of his opponent's backers cornered him about his identity.

" 'What are you?'" Stebbins recalled the supporter asking. "I said, 'I'm human.' 'Well, are you black or white?' I said, 'I'm black.' And that's where the issue was put out."

Stebbins' opponent, Ralph Lee White, also had worked as a civil rights activist. He'd grown up picking cotton in Texas before becoming a millionaire, building a 27-room mansion while running a bail bond business and a nightclub.

Stebbins defeated the 12-year incumbent, but White launched a recall in 1984 and cited the notation of white parents on Stebbins' birth certificate as if it were a grand jury indictment.

"If the momma is an elephant and the daddy is an elephant, they darn sure can't have no lion," White said then. "They got to have a baby elephant."

News stories labored to explain Stebbins' racial code-jamming.

"Stebbins has a broad nose and curly brown hair that he wears in a modest Afro style," The Times reported in 1984. "But his complexion is not dark, despite years of working outdoors. His driver's license lists his eye color as blue. And he acknowledges that his four sisters and his brother are white."

Ebony magazine, in a story titled "The 'White' Man Who Insists He's Black," interviewed his black barber, who denied Stebbins put anything in his Afro: "Nope, he's as black as I am.... Some of my kids are paler than Mark. The man is one of us."

Stebbins' parents gave shrugging interviews to say, well, no, they didn't think their son was black. "I consider him white, racially," his father, Vern, told one reporter. "But his outlook is toward the black."

The recall effort failed by more than 400 votes, but White launched a second effort that year, unseating Stebbins by 67 votes.

But the second recall also brought allegations that White's campaign improperly pressured absentee voters.

"When the ballots were mailed White and his agents went to the homes of the various electors in order to 'assist' them in casting their ballots," a California appeals court wrote in a 1987 ruling, affirming a trial court's decision to erase White's election and remove him from the council on the grounds that White "committed acts of bribery, fraud and coercion in the casting of some absentee ballots."

This week White, 72, happily discussed the election and said he hadn't gotten a fair trial. He denied any wrongdoing. "Not at all, not even a little bit," he said. "Just being sharp. The American way."

However, White said he would have handled the race issue differently if he had known then what he knows now about the Bible and how, given civilization's origins in Africa, everyone can be considered African. Racial terms have changed over the years, he said.

"Is he colored? Yes," White said of Stebbins. "Is he Negro? By the definition of Negro, no. But is he African American? Yes. Knowing history the way I know it, yes, he's African American.... I'm not black, I'm brown, but I'm closer to black than I am to light-skinned — I'm in between."

So is Stebbins black? "He can't be black. He's too light."

Stebbins, now 72, remembers his election and recall as small episodes in a lifetime spent pursuing racial quality and civic enrichment. In addition to running businesses, he is an arborist, a notary and president of the South Stockton Merchants Assn.

In other runs for office, none successful, his race has never come up, he said. The issue just disappeared.

Does he regret saying he was black in 1983?

"I pretty much did what I wanted to do and said what I wanted to say," he said. "The point is, we were trying to fight for justice, and one of the things that I wanted to convey is that it is not derogatory to be black."

And if you ask him today, yes, Stebbins still says he's black.

Twitter: @mattdpearce

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times