Horton reflects on Detroit's past
Former Tigers outfielder remembers riots of 1967
Willie Horton doesn't regret the emotions that caused him to drive straight into the middle of the Detroit riots of 1967. Horton regrets the short memories that have forgotten what the riots meant.
If he had to do it over again, Horton would go back to 12th Street on that fateful day when the flames engulfing Detroit's buildings were only matched by the fire inside those on Detroit's streets. He doesn't want to think about it solely as a low point in the city. He has watched the city heal, and for much of the time he's been a part of it. Now, at age 62, he's still trying to play as much a part in the city's future as he has in its past. His message, more than anything, is to never forget.
"I'm proud that I got involved and had the opportunity to go to different places," Horton said. "Things don't just happen. That's what I'm concerned about. There's a lot of people that gave their lives for what we take for granted today, and a lot of those people are from Detroit. And I think that's where we miss the boat. We don't educate our people. We separate ourselves."
Though he played in different cities during his career, Horton has never separated his heart from Detroit. He proudly tells people not only that he came from the city, but that he came from the city's projects. His story will finally come out in a biography this spring.
He grew up not far from 12th Street, where a raid on an after-hours social club -- known in those days as a "blind pig" -- during the early morning hours of July 23 triggered the city's plunge into chaos that would lead to the National Guard being called into town.
The Tigers played a doubleheader against the Yankees later that day, and fans and players alike could see smoke rising into the sky from beyond right field. A news blackout was in effect, but players and club officials soon learned what was going on.
"To this day, the only thing I remember is people telling us to go straight home," Horton said. "And then the next thing I know, I still have my uniform and I was out in the middle of the riots."
He was out there pleading with people to stop the looting and fires and go home. Some people listened, but not enough. Before it was over, 43 people died, more than 1,000 were injured, and over 4,000 were arrested.
Those facts, along with the sights -- fires lighting up the Detroit sky, paratroopers patrolling the city, looters breaking windows and making off with whatever they could find, and later residents moving out to the surburbs -- are what most remember from the riots. Horton wants people to remember more, like the festering issues that led to that sort of anger, and the sense of loss that led the city to heal.
"Any time a city breaks out in something like that, it's how you perceive it," Horton said. "A lot of people on the outside don't know what a city is going through. It's the people internal who know what's really going on. ...
"It started years ago. It just triggered off that night at the blind pig. Many years ago, it wasn't anything hidden. [Authorities] just misused black people and it just pushed itself on people. You would just stand on the corner and they'd tell you to get off the corner, and you'd better be off that corner by the time they came around again."
What was seen as a low point in the city's image, Horton said, also ended up being a turning point on the issue of race in the city, a stark sign that the situation had to change. The Tigers played a small role: With their run to a world championship in 1968, they gave Detroiters of all ages and races a common diversion helped keep the peace downtown. Horton was one of three African-American players on that team. The situation was immortalized two years ago by sportscaster and Detroit native Armen Keteyian in the HBO documentary "A City on Fire".
From there, Horton played a part in more concrete community efforts. The Police Athletic League started in Detroit in 1970, the first of several efforts at youth achievement. More recently, Horton and his kids helped create an education program called the Club 23 Foundation, named for his jersey number. The foundation adopts 23 kindergarten-age children and follows them through college to age 23.
"Everything happens for a purpose," Horton said. "Too many people in this world who have everything forget how to be humble. And you have to be humble to remember what life is about, to appreciate life. And I thank God for the people who were around me, who moved me. I'm very fortunate each one of my kids taught me something. That's the way my life has been, and that's what God wants me to do."
In his role as a special assistant with the Tigers, he is a living link to another generation, sharing not just memories of the club's greatness but also of an entirely different era for African-American players. He remembers coming up as a pro and not being able to stay in the same hotel with white players, including at Spring Training.
Horton sees at least a few of today's Tigers who appreciate those efforts Horton and others made, including Dmitri Young, Rondell White and Craig Monroe. What he hopes is that the rest of Detroit remembers not just him, but great Detroiters in other fields, such as Judge Damon Keith and U.S. Representative John Conyers.
He still doesn't believe things are truly equal for African-Americans, and he's not shy about saying it. But he also wants young Detroiters to have dreams, to have something to work toward. By appreciating the past, Horton believes, they'll realize that hard work pays off.
"If society still gives you stuff and you've still got your hand out, that's not what Dr. King taught," Horton said. "He taught opportunity. And I feel fortunate that I've been able to reach out. I just find myself involved in things, and it's right to do."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.