Willie Horton has been here before.
But so have we as a country.
And if that fact is lost on some, it takes but a moment now to hear it’ll never be lost on Horton, the former Detroit Tigers star who is honored with a monument at Comerica Park in part because of a moment more than a half-century ago that feels like the one we’re witnessing today.
Protesters in the streets and police on edge. Tear gas and rubber bullets. Fires set and fuses lit.
“Every time I see something like this,” Horton said, his voice cracking with emotion over the phone Monday afternoon, “I think about that.”
That was a Sunday evening, the 23rd of July in 1967, when Horton left Tiger Stadium — still in his uniform after a doubleheader against the Yankees — and drove himself into the middle of the bloodiest chapter of the long, hot summer of ’67.
It was there near the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount that Horton stood on the hood of his car, pleading for calm amid the chaos sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed drinking club the night before. His Ford was already scorched, and the folks in the streets were urging Horton to leave before he ended up a casualty. He and his teammates had been warned earlier to steer clear by club officials, but Horton didn’t, and he wouldn’t. He stayed for a few hours before trudging home as the rebellion grew.
“I’m more scared now than I was then,” he said, chuckling the way a 77-year-old man can — and should at his past. “When you’re young, you don’t think. you just do what you do. And I just followed my mind.”
His heart, too. Horton had grown up not far from that neighborhood in the Jefferson Projects. He’d graduated from Northwestern High School. And he certainly understood the reasons behind all that pent-up racial unrest — the white cops, the black residents and all the socioeconomic tinder beneath them that was set ablaze that week in an uprising that ultimately claimed 43 lives, left more than 2,500 stores looted and permanently scarred the city he still calls home.
All too familiar
But it’s from his home today, though, that he sees this all unfolding again, the civil unrest across the country in response to another case of police brutality.
Like so many of us, Horton was distraught by what he saw in the video of George Floyd’s death, one that's now ruled a murder by authorities in Minneapolis. A white police officer’s knee pressed on a handcuffed black man’s neck. The pleas for help. The gasping for air.
Horton is a devout man who believes deeply that “everything happens for a reason.” But this?
“I got on my knees and said some prayers for the young man that I was looking at on TV,” he said of the 46-year-old Floyd. “That’s the first time, really, I’ve seen someone die right there on TV. And that’s something I don’t know whether I’ll ever live that down. That’ll always be on my mind.”
And what’s on his mind today is what’s on so many of ours after a week of sleepless nights in dozens of U.S. cities. Fear. Frustration. Anger.
Horton says he appreciated the impassioned speech Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms gave Friday night as things spiraled out of control in her city.
“You’ve got to respect the law,” he said. “That looting — don’t let it get you away from the meaning of what you’ve been marching about. That’s wrong.”
But at the same time, he’s dismayed by what he’s hearing from the bully pulpit in Washington, D.C., too, “because you’ve got to have leadership there,” he said. “And I hate to say it, but from some of our top leaders, it’s bad.
“I don’t care who you are, once you get elected, you represent the people. And that’s what I’m so sad to see, because we as people need to come together.”
And yet, that’s also what he’s paying witness to, both here in Detroit — where the first few nights of demonstrations downtown resulted in injuries and arrests, but no looting - and in cities from coast to coast. He’s seeing more than black faces screaming for justice. He’s hearing a chorus that sounds different than before.
“What I like about it now is you see an integration,” Horton said. “There’s no color to this, there’s no religion to it. The young people, they're just tired of it. And I respect that, because they’ve picked up more than I thought they have through the years. They’re just tired of all this nonsense.”
Right and wrong are dangerously easy to twist, of course. That's why Horton and his wife of nearly 60 years, Gloria, taught their seven children — three boys and four girls, who now are parents and grandparents themselves, “how to police each other.”
“Because when you police each other, you learn to respect yourself and you recognize other people’s respect,” he said.
That’s easier said than done when the rules are different for some than others in this world, and while the message then was “this is just what you have to do — that’s the way the world is,” Horton said, there’s another lesson his life represents.
One about faith and friendship and the fight he showed not just as the youngest of 21 kids growing up in the projects, but as a young ballplayer trying to break into the big leagues.
His first taste came when Horton got off the bus from Detroit in Lakeland, Florida, ready to report for his first spring training in 1962. He tried to hail a cab to Tigertown but quickly learned drivers wouldn’t accept fares from blacks. So Horton walked the four miles to the complex on his first day. He recalls another night that spring when he and fellow prospect Mickey Stanley tried to go to Henley Field to watch the big-league club play, only to find that he’d be forced to sit in the corner of the grandstand unlike Stanley, who was white.
“So we walked back to Tigertown instead,” said Horton, who’d go on to win a World Series with Stanley — a close friend to this day — in 1968.
There were others like Stanley that Horton credits with showing him the value of friendship, and solidarity. Ernie Harwell, Jim Campbell, George Kell, Rocky Colavito, Gates Brown, and more. And it’s why he, in turn, reads from the same gospel now as he talks about the need for those in positions of power, or prominence, to speak up and speak out in a time like this.
“I’ve seen a lot of the athletes stepping out and getting involved in this, helping to support what’s going on with the marching the last few days,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”
He got a call Sunday from out of the blue to remind him of that, too. It was Art James, a former ballplayer from Detroit who had a brief stint with the Tigers in the mid-1970s, calling from Atlanta to check in with a mentor he still calls “Boomer Pops.” He just wanted him to know how much he’d meant to him and so many others.
“He brought tears to my eyes,” Horton said. “And that’s why I tell athletes, ‘Watch how you carry yourself off the field. Because whether you know it or not, these kids look up to you.’”
And whether they know it or not, they should know Willie Horton is watching now. He's hoping and praying, too. But he's also bracing for what's to come, because having seen what he's seen, he understands how long a march like this might last.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “A long way."