Meet the Rev. George Stevens of 1987: A longtime aide to Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego). Former chairman of the San Diego Stadium Authority. A minister and a member of myriad Southeast San Diego and citywide organizations. A Democrat who finished first in last month’s San Diego City Council 4th District primary. A veritable pillar of the black community.
Now flash back to the George Stevens of the late 1960s and early 1970s: A firebrand local civil rights leader who talked of “hating white people with a black passion,” a frontline activist with a hair-trigger temper who disrupted community meetings by tossing over tables, shouting profanities and waving an ammunition belt, whose arrests cost him countless jobs and a house, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama and who, the first time he ran for City Council, saw a cross burned on his lawn.
“Sometimes, I look back and wonder, ‘Was that really me? Did I do that? Did those things really happen?’ ” the 55-year-old Stevens said. “I’m a much milder person now. Things that I took so seriously at the time, I look at now and think, ‘That was kind of heavy.’
“But you reflect the times you’re in. Back then, they were shooting us and hanging us, we didn’t have the right to vote or to buy any house we wanted. When you remember that, it puts things in perspective and the sting kind of goes away.”
Born in Junction City, La., a small town on the Louisiana-Arkansas border, Stevens was an only child whose mother was 17 when she bore him out of wedlock. He met his natural father only once, an occasion on which father presented son with 30 cents. Today, Stevens’ frequent speeches to youth groups are built around that incident.
“I say that one dime was used to buy an ‘A,’ for attitude, another dime bought another ‘A,’ for aptitude, and the final dime went for altitude,” Stevens said. “And the moral is, with a good attitude and the right aptitude, there’s no limit to your altitude. I think my own life shows that.”
Stevens began working in cotton fields when he was 8 years old and, by the time he was 13, was “paying my own way” as a laborer in a sugar beet plant and in melon fields.
During World War II, he and his mother moved to El Centro to be near his stepfather, who was stationed in Arizona. A three-sport athlete, Stevens attended segregated schools until his senior year in high school.
After attending junior college for two years in El Centro, Stevens transferred to San Diego State University, where, despite his relatively small size, he earned a football scholarship. Among other jobs, he worked as a bus boy at the University Club throughout college, and proudly says: “The place where I used to bus dishes, I now sit at the head table.”
An education major, Stevens had planned to become a teacher, but, after graduating in 1958, began working at Convair as a budget analyst. Within several years, however, his career goals were altered and, in some ways, supplanted, by his growing civil rights activism.
During the 1960s, Stevens was the prototype young black revolutionary, blending his rage over the indignities endured by blacks with a willingness to accept the legal consequences of trying to rectify those inequities. Jailed for his part in protests against SDG&E; and the Bank of America, Stevens, who was also called “Chaka,” fired off rhetorical salvos such as this: “We will make peace with (whites and police) who make peace with us and we will make war with those who make war with us.”
In 1965, Stevens lost his only previous political campaign when he ran for the newly created 8th District City Council seat. The following year, unable to find a local job because of his jail record, Stevens, who by then was married and had a family, accepted a job with Lockheed in Los Angeles, commuting back to San Diego on weekends.
When he returned to San Diego full time in the late 1960s, Stevens moved quickly through a succession of jobs, serving as the San Diego Urban League’s job placement director, a job agent for the state Department of Human Resources, and selling ads for the Voice and Viewpoint, a Southeast San Diego weekly newspaper.
Stevens became the county’s first affirmative action officer in 1972, but was fired from that job after only several months for “conduct unbecoming a county employee” after he disrupted Urban League and United Way meetings.
According to one newspaper account, Stevens, who had been at odds with the Urban League since being dismissed from the job placement post, turned over tables, cursed board members, waved around a cartridge belt and shouted: “Stop the meeting and everyone leave but the blacks. This is a black community problem and they should settle it.”
Shortly thereafter, Stevens, who is the father of four grown children and lives in the Emerald Hills area of Southeast San Diego with his wife, found religion and underwent a “spiritual change that redirected my life.”
“I heard the calling and began to preach,” said Stevens, an associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church. “I didn’t get it from a burning bush or anything rolling down the sidewalk. It’s a very personal experience with the Lord that’s difficult to explain.”
That experience muted some of Stevens’ earlier “black anger,” though not his ardor for social change. In one 1976 news story, Stevens was quoted as saying: “I believe that I should only profess something, not protest anything. I now can look at any white redneck racist and say I love him as much as any black I know.”
It also brought greater tranquillity and stability to Stevens’ professional life. For the last 13 years, Stevens has worked for Bates, first at the county and now as the congressman’s community representative. A veteran of numerous boards and commissions, he authored the county’s affirmative action plan, helped establish district elections for school board races, and was instrumental in the creation of the local Job Corps Center, a major youth employment training program.
His temper, however, still occasionally surfaces, and anecdotes about his outbursts are well-known in political circles. In the early 1980s, he brought then-City Councilwoman Susan Golding to tears with a vitriolic denunciation at one black community meeting.
“He strikes me as a Jekyll-and-Hyde type guy,” one former city official said. “He has the ability to come across as very calm and reasonable, one of the guys in the mainstream. But say or do the wrong thing, and this rabid, venomous creature lurches out at you.”
Stevens, though, insists that he has “no regrets over anything,” and emphasizes that, if his words and actions are to be viewed in context, they must be “looked at in relation to the times and what was going on.”
“One of the most amazing things to me is that so many people who didn’t understand what I was doing back then now are very close to me,” he said. “I think people have a great deal of respect for me as someone who was willing to pay a price, to give up a lot of things to address injustices in this community and this country.
“I went to jail, lost jobs, lost a house. I was broke for a while. But I’m proud of the results and others appreciate those results. I guess what I’ve learned is, you can’t always make people like you, but you can make them respect you.”