Detroit’s Hero

Willie Horton helped heal the city in wake of 1967 riots

February 15, 2013
Willie Horton (NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Bruce Markusen

To the people of Detroit, Willie Horton is more than just a retired baseball star. He has achieved the status of a civil rights hero.

Horton’s heroism dates back to 1967. That summer, racial rioting in Detroit resulted in 43 deaths, more than 450 injuries, 7,200 arrests, and 2,000 burned buildings. On Monday, July 24, with rioting at particularly intense levels, the Tigers canceled their scheduled home game against the Baltimore Orioles. The Tigers also canceled their games on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The events of Sunday, July 23, triggered the riots. Vice squad police offers raided a blind pig, or speakeasy, on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount on Detroit’s west side.  Police expected to find only about 20 to 25 patrons, but instead discovered 82 people on the premises. They were celebrating the return of two veterans from the Vietnam War.

The police decided to arrest everyone on site; a crowd then gathered around the speakeasy, with many protesting the decision to arrest the patrons. The angry confrontation led to five days of riots, along with President Johnson’s decision to summon the National Guard.

Horton left Tiger Stadium immediately after Detroit’s Sunday afternoon doubleheader with the Yankees and moved directly into the streets in an effort to quell some of the violence. Still in full Tiger uniform, Horton climbed aboard a truck to speak to a gathering crowd of insurgents. Unfortunately, Horton couldn’t stop the riots by himself, but he did succeed in making a genuine effort.

Horton’s bravery under siege probably did not surprise many of his Tiger teammates, who had come to respect the quiet left fielder for his understated leadership and unwavering approach to his work. Horton was one of just a few black players on the Tigers at the time and the team’s only full-fledged African-American star. He was extremely popular with black fans throughout Detroit, helping attract a number of African-American visitors in creating a diverse crowd at Tiger Stadium. It’s worth noting that white and black fans intermingled without incident at the old ballpark, in contrast to the violence that bubbled between the races in the city streets.

Though his efforts did no short-term good in calming the crowd, Horton’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way was courageous. In satisfying the notion of athlete as role model, he undoubtedly gained long-term admiration from both whites and blacks.

One year after the riots, the Tigers won the world championship, further helping to heal the city at one of the most difficult times in its history. “… ’68 was a win for the entire city of Detroit,” Horton said in 1997. “It came a year after riots had torn up our streets, our people, our relationships. I remember walking down Livernois Avenue during the summer of ’67 and seeing all the destruction, all the terror… It was a completely helpless feeling. So ’68 brought people together at a time that was so very important.”

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’NeilElston HowardRachel Robinsonthe Evolution of Night BaseballWelday WalkerHerb WashingtonConnie MorganBill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson.

Bruce Markusen is a freelance writer from Cooperstown, N.Y.