Thank you Willy Horton for bringing peace to Detroit

I served six years in the military and had never seen anything like this. I was standing in a war zone, surrounded by armed troops, hundreds of police and two U.S. Army tanks, their cannons aimed at the buildings in front of them. There were no fires at the moment, but smoke still hung over the streets, a grim reminder of the arson which had taken place the past few days. A number of buildings were gutted as a result, and as I think back it reminds me of some of the scenes we see on the news today, principally from Syria. But this was not Syria, this was Detroit, Michigan, my home town, on July 25, 1967.

I watched hundreds of local citizens breaking windows in stores, looting at will, even those with the sign “soul brother” posted on the door. Neither the National Guard nor police were paying any attention to the looters, and at first I couldn’t understand why. Then I realized they were on the alert for arsonists and shooters. Looting was of little consequence at the moment.

At the time I’d been a lifelong resident. I loved my city, which at the time was the fifth largest in the country, famous for the auto industry and provider of hundreds of thousands of well- paying jobs. I was sadly, like so many around me, oblivious to the pain and suffering of the “inner city folk,” who even if they had a decent job, could not escape the living conditions they were forced to endure. They were boxed in, and there seemed to be no way out. For years I had driven in, through, and around those neighborhoods, never giving a second thought to their way of life. It’s just the way it was.

On July 23, 1967 the police raided an after-hours speakeasy in the heart of the African- American community. The owner and the paying customers were black, and eighty-five of them were herded onto the streets, loaded into paddy wagons, and hauled away. A disgruntled onlooker picked up a brick, pitched it through a store window and that was the start. The locals flooded the streets, and what began as severe vandalism, escalated into an all-out war, bullets flying, people killed, arson destroying large portions of the business area and local officials scratching their collective heads, “how could this happen.”

The Governor, Mayor, Chief of Police and the National Guard Commandant made it clear: stay away from this area, and imposed a curfew. I made the decision I was going to check this out for myself; I had to see what was going on first hand. I’ve always been a big risk taker, but this was probably pushing the envelope. I knew the city streets like the back of my hand and found a way in managing to avoid the cordoned off areas. I stood there, mouth open, aghast at the sight, to say nothing of the activity going on. Surprisingly none of the officials bothered me, as I was white and all the troublemakers happened to be African–Americans, although that was hardly the term being used at the time. I stayed long enough to soak it all in and then scurried home to my safe haven.

At the risk of repeating myself, which I am going to do, following are words I wrote in my Reel Time with Tom column of July 27: “My original choice for this week’s movie (review) was the compelling documentary Detroit, the story about the dreadful 1967 riots that took place in the city where I was born and raised. I was there in the middle of it all, but lived to tell about it. At the last minute I decided I didn’t want to experience it again.” Thus, I went to see and reviewed one of the worst movies in history, A Ghost Story. That was a hauntingly bad decision.

Our Executive Editor Chris La Pelusa asked me to re-consider my decision, go see the movie and tell us about your experiences, and how the movie compares. I never argue with my editor so I decided to do just that. I saw the film and was overwhelmed. The movie was not a documentary in the literal sense. It was a movie script designed to tell the true story of the horrors of those weeks as a portion of the proud Motor City was decimated, and countless lives impacted forever. To be sure, there were actual photos and film clips woven in, but scripting and playing out the story with a tremendous crew of actors was far more impactful.

Thanks, Chris, for your suggestion; I’m glad I went.

Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty among others) did an incredible job. Already the winner of two Oscars, she should be in line for another nomination, although I’m not sure that will happen. The movie focuses some on the street violence, but eventually concentrates on the incidents in the Algiers Motel, where unbelievable police brutality resulted in three cold-blooded murders. I was nowhere near there, and only recall the newspaper stories about that event. As a historical followup, three years later, the responsible police officers were brought to trial, and despite overwhelming evidence and first-hand witness testimony, they were acquitted, by you guessed it, an all-white jury. That trial was a part of the movie.

What was not depicted in the movie was the aftermath and healing process. I was also a witness to and in a very small way part of it. As the winter months wore on, and 1968 approached, there were strong rumors of another uprising when the weather warmed up in the spring. Then an amazing thing took place. The 1968 Detroit Tigers roared out of the starting gate, took over first place, and remained there the whole year. The Tigers, like the Cubs, had been without for too long. There is only one baseball team in Detroit, thus no divided loyalties. The face of the team was an outstanding player by the name of Willy Horton, one of the few African American players, at the time, who had worn a Tiger’s uniform. The city became enthralled with their beloved baseball team, the black community loved Willy Horton who was having a sensational year on the field, and the whole city pulled together rooting the team to not only the pennant, but a world-series championship as well. (And for what it’s worth, over the hated Cardinals). I remember the celebration like it was yesterday, watching whites and blacks hugging each other with the pure joy only a true baseball fan can appreciate. Thank you Willy Horton.

Many historians have credited the success of the baseball team that year to the peace and quiet that prevailed over the once torn city, paving the way for reconciliation and beginning the long hard road to a better way of life.

I mentioned earlier I have always been a big risk taker, and for the most part, that has served me well. Perhaps a bigger risk than working my way into the middle of all that violence was marrying a woman with five young children. (I already had two of my own). We just celebrated our 40th anniversary, so my risks have a way of working out. Some of you know my wife Annamarie, and if you don’t, you may have seen her walking our little dog, Molly, up and down Windy Prairie Drive. Contemplating everything I have seen and done, I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world, not only because of my wife and our family, but being surrounded by the greatest group of folks anywhere, all of you in Sun City.

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