As Saturday’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., parade gets underway, spectators will catch a glimpse of Grand Marshal Willie Horton, 80, riding in a convertible and waving at the crowd.
Some might see only an elderly gentleman and not know what he has done in his life — or for them. Others might spot the large ring he wears on his left hand, the one he received when the 1968 Detroit Tigers won the World Series, back when he played left field for his hometown team.
But it’s what he did on the streets of Detroit in 1967, at Lakeland’s Polk Theatre and at the Holiday Inn on Memorial Boulevard during the 1960s that has earned him a place of honor in Saturday’s parade.
On late Sunday afternoon, July 23, 1967, Horton was standing in left field, feeling his cleats dig into the manicured grass as he waited for a pop-up fly ball or a base hit to head his way, listening to the rise and fall murmur of the 34,600 people in the stands.
It was the second game of a double header against the New York Yankees. Detroit had lost the first game, but Horton, 24, had managed to smack a home run into the left field stands in the fourth inning of the second game, helping to push the Tigers ahead.
Looking back over his left shoulder that evening, out beyond the bleachers, Horton got one of his first hints that something was very wrong in his hometown. Black smoke was unfurling into the early twilight sky as rioters 3 ½ miles away set fires to stores and homes along 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue – the area where Horton had delivered newspapers as a kid.
After more than six hours of the double-header, including a break between games, the second game finished after 7 p.m. with a 7-2 victory over New York and Horton and his teammates trotted to the locker room. They were told that a riot was underway and to go home. They would be provided with an escort if they needed one.
But Horton had other ideas.
According to Curt Sylvester, who was then a sports writer for United Press International, several things stood out to him that day.
“Seeing the smoke rising during the game, listening to Willie Horton in the locker room as a voice of reason making an appeal for the violence to stop,” Sylvester told the Detroit Free Press in 2017.
Still wearing his white home uniform with the large, blue, calligraphy D emblazoned on his chest and Horton stitched in letters across his shoulders, the Tigers’ number 23 drove to 12th Street, where he used to sling copies of the Michigan Chronicle onto house stoops and storefronts.
“I took my street clothes, put ’em in my duffel bag, and went in the middle of the riot and tried to bring peace,” Horton, now 80, recalled as he sat in an office in Lakeland’s Joker Marchant Stadium, the Tigers’ spring training home.
Horton said he stood on the roof of his car and yelled at the rioters, asking them why they were setting buildings on fire.
He remembers rioters approaching him, asking him to leave, concerned for his safety.
“All I did was try to say the right word at the time … to bring peace, because I didn’t see …” Horton said, pausing to think a moment. “(It’s) unnecessary when you riot to burn down stuff. That was frightening to see stuff on fire and stuff like that. But you know, I try to tell people don’t get away from what the riot is about. Because when you loot and things like that, you get away from what the riot is about.”
According to his 2004 autobiography with Kevin Allen, “The People’s Champion: Willie Horton,” no one could tell him why they were burning down their own neighborhood.
The spark that started the violence that day was, according to reports, the overnight police raid of an unlicensed bar on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue. It is an area that historians describe as the center of the city’s oldest and poorest black neighborhood. The welcome-home party for two Vietnam War veterans was shut down in the early morning hours of July 23 and more than 80 people were rounded up and arrested. Talk of excessive force by the police spread through the neighborhood and about 200 people began gathering. Shortly after 5 a.m., bottles were thrown at police and a trashcan was hurled through a store window.
Looting and violence spread along 12th Street that morning and afternoon. As Horton was on the playing field, the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who was Black, climbed onto his car to tell the rioters to go home, but began to be hit with bottles and bricks. Police told him they couldn’t guarantee his safety.
The fires the rioters started were whipped up by hot, 25-mile-per-hour summer winds and spread to neighboring structures. Firefighters who had arrived to put out the blazes found themselves the targets of more bricks and bottles, along with gunfire and cut firehoses.
Days later when the violence ended, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured, 7,231 were arrested, 2,509 stores were damaged from looting or fires, 690 buildings were destroyed or had to be demolished, and 388 were families displaced. It was one of the worst riots in U.S. history.
A U.S. Department of Justice report on the riots that summer, including Detroit’s, stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white—separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.”
But the report’s investigators also concluded: “This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed … What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.”
Natural Ability And Civil Rights
Horton was the youngest of 21 children. He said he got into baseball as a kid, but not by playing little league. He would fish by a creek near his early childhood home in Arno, Va., and, while waiting for a nibble, he started hitting bottle caps with a broomstick.
“Nobody ever showed me how to hold a bat or anything,” Horton said. “I’m a great believer in natural ability and I think God gives certain people, certain things. I was very fortunate that the good Lord surrounded me with the right people and helped me develop the ability that He gave me.”
Horton was drafted by the Tigers’ club in 1961, becoming one of the team’s first Black players at 19. He spent time in the minor leagues, traveling to small towns to play ball. He said he remembered a few things he and his Black and Hispanic teammates were subjected to in the early to mid-1960s.
“Mickey Stanley — one of my teammates that helped me start getting involved with integration — we played on the field but yet I had to eat on one side of the room; (we) couldn’t room together,” Horton said of his white teammate. “And I remember one time in Asheville, (North Carolina), we were in AA ball after we left spring training, and we had a long game and they used to drop me off at the … I used to stay in the black hotel. And it was a late game so Mickey Stanley said, ‘I’m gonna go with you.’ So he went with me and they wouldn’t get him a room in a black hotel. And from that day on, I’ve been totally involved in racial problems and trying to make it better, even ground and better for all people.”
Horton said that in Lakeland, when he joined the major-league Tigers, he and Stanley couldn’t eat together in the Tigers’ cafeteria.
“When I came here, the lunchroom, the white players would be on one side, and we’d be on the other side,” Horton said, adding that the old Army barracks the players stayed in at the former military base were also segregated – and there was no air conditioning or heat in Black and Hispanic barracks. Horton joked that you could lose 10 pounds staying in those barracks on a hot night.
He said Publix Founder George Jenkins, along with then-Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director Joker Marchant, became a part of his life. When the Holiday Inn on Memorial Boulevard was built, it was Jenkins who supplied Horton with the meat to barbecue every day after practice because the team couldn’t eat together in the hotel restaurant.
“So what we did, we started doing the Willie Horton barbecue — we started cooking five days a week through the week to bring the players together, but then the people in the city came together and from that, that’s how I got involved in doing things,” Horton said.
He also called the late Madeline Brooks, a local civil rights worker and NAACP member, his second mother after his own parents died in a car accident on New Year’s morning 1965. He credits her, Jenkins and Marchant for helping him to become a man. He also credits his 20 siblings.
“God gave me the willing to try to help. A lot of people end up hating people. I’ve run across a lot of people and I say, ‘How can you hate a person?’ ” Horton said. “But I took bumps in the road and made me a better man, a better personality. And I think I owe that to all of my sisters and brothers, being the youngest. And I had opportunity to tell each and every one of them, the last of 21 kids, how much I appreciate them, how they helped me, mentor me, to become the person I became in my life.”
Lakeland wouldn’t be quite the same without Horton. While he was here during Spring Training, he and a groundskeeper who went by Gator, a white young man, would go fishing after practice and then go to the movies together at the segregated Polk Theatre on South Florida Avenue. He and Gator would sit downstairs in the white section together, he said, without any problems from management or other patrons. At the time, Black people were required to sit upstairs in the balcony.
“I came back to picket it, just to prove, to show them that I already been to the Polk Theatre” Horton said. “That helped me feel comfortable about picketing the Polk Theatre because I was used to going with Gator. They ain’t never said nothing to me.”
1968 World Series
A year after the riot that burned down swaths of Detroit, some of which still hasn’t been rebuilt 55 years later, Horton and his teammates won the American League pennant and headed to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I really can’t express my feeling now and the love and appreciation that went in it, that so many great other ballplayers, Hall of Fame ball players, never played in the World Series,” Horton said. “So I’ve been blessed. I’m one of the few people that played in the World Series. I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to play and win the World Series.”
He said when they arrived in St. Louis for practice, he, Jim Northrup and Stanley walked into the clubhouse and were so awestruck they didn’t head to the dugout.
“We got kind of stuck to the benches inside the clubhouse, we were so nervous,” Horton said. “I look back in life and thank God Eddie Matthews, a great Hall of Fame player, came through the clubhouse and asked, ‘What you guys doing?’ He said, ‘Y’all better get on out there and enjoy, loosen up, and get ready to play the World Series the next day.’ But it was just fortunate to have the right people around us as a young team that helped guide us through the pressure that you add to yourself.”
He compared it to a kid not wanting to go to school because he hadn’t done his homework. He said he learned that day to prepare and to apply himself to his job.
The series went to all seven games in an up-and-down matchup. Horton’s record in the series is stellar: he hit a home run in game two (see the video) and a triple in game five that saw a run batted in, along with another RBI in game six.
But it was a rocket-like throw in the fifth inning of game five that Horton says is his favorite play of the series. Lou Brock hit the ball to left field and Horton caught the bounce, launching the ball to home plate where Tiger catcher Bill Freehan caught it. Brock tried to knock him over, but Freehan held onto the ball and blocked the plate. The umpire swung his arm around to the ground and Brock was out.
“That’s just me doing my homework, knowing my job,” Horton said. “I didn’t need no note in my pocket telling my job. I know my job before I left the hotel going to the ball park … that was just one of the many plays in my mind that I will carry in certain games.”
The series is also known for two other things: Jose Feliciano’s then-controversial stylized rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that saw his career damaged and Roger Maris’ final appearance in professional baseball.
Willie Horton 360 Foundation
Horton lives part of the year at his home in Polk County and said he wants to give back to the community he returns to each spring.
About seven years ago, he started the Willie Horton 360 Foundation. The organization’s Facebook page says the group uses “sports as a tool to engage the youth. As a means of going into the forgotten communities and starting the necessary dialogue that leads to fixing the ills that plague the families forced to deal with the hardships faced by those that are void of a voice.”
It went inactive when COVID-19 settled in, and Horton is still covering from some of the effects of the virus, but he is rebooting the organization.
Asked what advice he would give to young people, Horton talked about his faith, his relationship with God and his belief in Jesus.
“You got to be grateful and be thankful,” Horton said. “You got to be prayerful and I think we’re too busy criticizing each other instead of trying to help each other. … Jesus got me through all the cracks. and, yeah, kind of make me appreciate. It don’t hurt you to open the door and say, ‘Yes ma’am. No, ma’am.’ … You got to sort of think and be very grateful and thankful. And I think that’s what we missing today.”
Horton has been married for 61 years and has 49 grandchildren and great grandchildren. He said the secret to their successful marriage was the children and watching his own father support the family.
“Dad worked all types of jobs and never run away from his responsibility,” Horton said. “So I think he taught each and every one us how to take care of family. Watching our father coming up as young men. Not only me, I think it helped my other brothers and sisters, when they had to go work and have responsibility as a person to take care your family.”
Back at Joker Marchant Stadium, Horton said he watches the Tigers’ coaches more than the players.
“Because it’s important to me, for them to add to each individual ability, where you grow with knowledge, have a good foundation, where you have good-decisions skills, you can make choices,” Horton said. “And I think that’s what we’re missing out. We need to program in him to do this, do that. We’ve indirectly drawn people from their natural ability about life.”
Horton said sometimes the groundskeepers and players at Joker Marchant Stadium catch him reminiscing. Where we see a carefully manicured stadium, Horton sees the ballpark of his youth.
“Well, when I was a kid it wasn’t that busy then — just two little narrow roads. You know, but this, I seen all this grow. And that’s what I enjoy about life and traveling,” Horton said. “You know, I walk around somewhere in Tigertown, these young boys see me talking to myself and smiling. And I be just dreaming … about when I was a kid, running across the field and a guy be in the tower, shooting snakes while we’re going out and practicing. Seeing the planes coming in and landing and stuff like that. I just think about the past and be grateful.”
As Horton makes his way along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Lakeland on Saturday, a lot of his history in Lakeland will come to his mind.
“Lakeland is just as important to me — more important to me, maybe – than Detroit, where I’ve been coming out as a kid, coming up as a young man,” Horton said. “But I’ve been coming here as 62 years and I’m so proud of this town.”
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