Camel's Hair and Locusts

Detroit to Ferguson: Embracing the Community as Adults

When I was a boy in the mid 1960's, the much anticipated highlight of every summer was the annual father-son bus trip to Tiger Stadium in Detroit to watch the Tigers play baseball.  Every year a deluxe coach would be chartered from the Mercury Bus Line, and the wives and mothers would bid us a fond farewell, as our dads were heralded for providing us this day of wholesome entertainment.  And we sons knew enough to keep quiet about the way some of the dads and sons actually behaved.  It was a father-son bonding experience to be sure, but not in the way the wives and mothers understood it.  Most of our dads were World War II veterans, and even those who were not found it easy to fall into the spirit of military like camaraderie that ruled the day.  On one occasion, that camaraderie included a dad "casualty" carried out of the ballpark dead drunk by dads on each elbow in the third inning of the second game of a doubleheader.  His comrades used the two and a half hour bus ride home to sober him up as much as possible, and passed this off to his missus as "something he ate at the ballpark."  To keep something like this from happening again, the rule for the day became single games only.     

How could something like this happen?  Well, at the front center aisle of the bus, there was a horse trough filled with ice and a spectacular selection of beer and soft drinks.  The beer was for the dads of course, and the pop for the boys, though among the older boys this line of demarcation would sometimes become somewhat blurred.  I remember one trip home from the ballpark when some of the older brothers among us had snitched beer from the trough, and the combination of the roll of the road, the cigar smoke, and the diesel fumes at the back of the bus resulted in several young men vomiting a combination of hotdogs, other ballpark treats and beer out the back windows.  Seeing the windshield washers and wipers activated on the cars in back of us gave surreal testimony to the spew coming from our vehicle.  And while many of the dads puffing cigars and playing poker were blissfully or willfully ignorant, others, like mine, were more aware of what was going on, and suggested to us younger fellows that perhaps this wasn't something that should be related to Mom when we got home.  And since we all wanted to go again next year, we said nothing to our mothers, and the dads expressed their collective pride in what well behaved gentlemen their sons all were -- and they got away with this stuff for years.  It's not like they were the "Greatest Generation" for nothing.

The one interruption that occurred in this annual ritual came in 1967.  Usually, weekend games were preferred, and on the weekend of July 22 was a Saturday game with the always hated Yankees.  Perfect.  But the advance sale for Yankee games was always swift, and no acceptable place remained in the ballpark for a group our size.  Sunday was ruled out because it was a doubleheader; this was the year after the incident related above, and the doubleheader rule was invoked.  The game chosen instead was the coming Tuesday night contest with the Orioles because they were defending World Champions, and Denny McLain was set to pitch for the Tigers.  I cannot begin to describe the excitement I felt as I anticipated seeing McLain's perfect form and high leg kick result in fastball after fastball blown by the likes of Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair and the rest of the Baltimore line-up.  And likewise, I cannot describe the rising sense of dread, and the ultimate disappointment, as the news reached us by Monday that the riot we had heard of vaguely on Sunday had escalated to such an extent that the Tuesday Tigers game was canceled -- and so was our bus trip.

The Detroit Riot, or 12th Street Riot, as it was known more locally, began in the early morning hours of July 23, when Detroit Police from the 10th Precinct raided a party at a "blind pig" at the corner of 12th and Clairmont, upstairs in the Economy Printing building.  Raids were common in these establishments, usually netting a dozen persons or so, but on this particular night, a party in progress for two returning Vietnam vets swelled the crowd to some 82 people.  After arresting and detaining those present, the police spent an uneasy and tense hour waiting for backup and additional paddy wagons to arrive from adjoining precincts, and during this time the crowd gathered outside grew to over 200.  Amid catcalls from the crowd, rocks and bottles were being hurled at the building, and randomly at police, and as the last police vehicle pulled away from the scene "...someone from the crowd picked up a bottle and launched it high into the air. Like the home crowd at a football game watching a last chance Hail Mary pass, the mob bridled as the bottle arced passed a streetlight, began its decent and crashed right through the rear window of the last police cruiser which wisely kept on going. Like scoring the winning touchdown with time running out, the crowd went berserk.  The Great Rebellion had begun."

Due to a local news blackout, even those of us outstate in places like Alma were blissfully unaware of what was going on down in Detroit that Sunday morning.  At one o'clock, the Tigers and the Yankees began their doubleheader as usual, and, as usual, I had the 1940's RCA radio/phonograph in my bedroom tuned in to the Tigers' flagship station, WJR, in anticipation of the afternoon of baseball that was to follow.  Mel Stottlemyre beat Mickey Lolich 4 to 2 in the first game, and the Tigers earned a split by beating Fritz Peterson 7 to 3 in the second game on home runs by Jim Landis and Willie Horton, and a two run single by winning pitcher Johnny Hiller.  The first indication I had that something was amiss in Detroit was when legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell announced near the end of game 2 that "due to a disturbance in the area" the crowd present should disperse towards home rather than linger at the customary neighborhood watering holes like Nemo's and the Lindell AC.

Tiger Stadium was at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in those days.  All you had to say was "The Corner" and everybody knew which one you meant.  Trumbull ran parallel to 12th Street (which is now Rosa Parks Boulevard), and Cochrane, which ran along the west side of the ballpark, was two blocks from 12th.  As the afternoon wore on, the "disturbance in the area" was spreading quickly, and the smoke rising from the arson induced fires was rising ominously above the center field bleachers by the time the crowd of 34,000 filed out of the ballpark and headed quickly for home.

There was a legend that persisted among Tigers fans from the days after the riot that Willie Horton, an all-star Tigers player who grew up in the 12th Street neighborhood around the ballpark, had gone into the streets in uniform after the second game that day and had persuaded the rioting crowd to spare the ballpark from destruction.  This legend had pretty much receded into Tigers folklore when Willie, many years after the fact, explained the truth behind it.  He had indeed gone out into the rioting mob that day, and had stood on the hood of a car and had unsuccessfully tried to talk the rioters into dispersing.  In this article by MLB beat writer Jason Beck, "Willie Horton's heroics went far beyond the diamond," we learn that the real Willie is that rare person who actually exceeds and transcends his sports legend: 

"Many athletes over the years have talked about Detroit being a city on the rebound and have admirably done their part to help. Horton was one of the few who was on the ground during the city's most trying time. He still can't quite explain why he took to the streets on July 23, 1967, with fires and looting taking hold of the town. He couldn't expect to stop it, but he had to try.

"That night became a footnote to what ended up as one of America's worst weeks of unrest, but to Horton it was the start of a lifelong commitment to being a city advocate as well as a resident.

"'Maybe,' Horton wrote with Kevin Allen years later in his biography, The People's Champion, 'that was the night I embraced my community for the first time as an adult.'

"'Any time a city breaks out in something like that, it's how you perceive it,' Horton told in an interview a few years ago. '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.'"

The unrest this August in Ferguson, Missouri, calls to mind the words of Willie Horton concerning the situation in Detroit some 47 years ago.  Once again human ugliness came out of hiding. Authorities just misused black people, and it just pushed itself on people.  The deeper reasons behind the unrest and the violence in Ferguson are being explored endlessly in print elsewhere, and that's not the purpose behind me relating this childhood tale of mine.  Suffice it to say that as long as black people and other minorities remain economically disadvantaged and segregated from the opportunity the rest of us have to achieve success and prosperity in America, then Jim Crow remains alive and well, and we should expect that the frustration and anger inherent in this will raise its ugly head in violence.  And the more these opportunities in America diminish for all of us, then the more this will exacerbate the decay in the urban areas of the nation, and this will result in authorities misusing those who turn to crime and violence as a means of survival.  And when the population affected is predominantly black, then it is black people who will be misused and abused.  That was true in Detroit in 1967, and it's true in Ferguson today.

What Willie Horton refers to when he says, "It started years ago," is the boom and bust cycles that provided the growing (and shrinking) pains of Detroit in the 20th century.  The city grew from 285,000 in 1900 to a peak of 1.8 million in 1950, and has since fallen to under 700,000 today.  Two world wars opened the way for both poor southern whites and blacks to come to Detroit with the promise of a new prosperity that would overcome finally the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South.  With the vision of a new start and a new life in the industrial hub of the nation had come hope, and with the people would come the prejudices and bigotry of racial hatred that would keep the potential of this hope from ever being fully realized.  The boom of World War I and the roar of the automobile driven 20's would give way to the bust of the Great Depression.  And the ensuing explosion of World War II would make Detroit the "Arsenal of Democracy" and once again open the human floodgates to southern economic refugees both black and white.  The tensions and pressures present in wartime Detroit would explode into violence in 1943, and result in the other bloody (and more forgotten) Detroit riot of the century.  After the war, the auto companies diversified by closing outdated plants and factories in the city and moving into new facilities in the suburbs.  Management and the white union rank and file largely followed.  Due to rampant redlining in both the city and the suburbs, blacks became essentially trapped in the economic and crime ridden wasteland that the inner city had evolved into, and the stage was set for the explosion that finally took place in late July, 1967.  

"The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit's losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion, the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969."

The summer of 1967 gave way to the fall.  Given the uncertainty of the situation in Detroit following the riot, it was decided that no attempt would be made to reschedule our trip to the ballpark.  When school started in the fall, the missed game became a major topic of conversation among those of us so disappointed by it, and I remember one of the older boys commenting that, " was bullshit that we got screwed out of the best day of the summer by a bunch of asshole niggers in Detroit."  As this rather narrow minded and selfish perspective made its way through the younger generation, it did not go unnoticed by the older one.  And while it wasn't that unusual for those of this generation to use the "n" word freely and, perhaps, even often, and to tell certain jokes and stories that were forbidden in the polite company of their world let alone ours, they most certainly didn't like it when their sons did this.  And they called us on it.  Apparently, they didn't mean anything by their behavior and we did, and they believed collectively that they had a point to prove to us, and this is how they did it:

As it turned out, one of the motives behind the annual pilgrimage we made to Tiger Stadium was to give us white bread small town white kids a little exposure to the vast cultural differences that were Detroit to us.  It was a fascinating place, and on the bus we would go through what seemed like an endless corridor of concrete and freeway traffic and weird surroundings to come out in a strange and wondrous place that was populated largely by black people.  Prior to entering the stadium, we would wander around the Corktown neighborhood that the ballpark was in, buy snacks at the little grocery store on Trumbull, and get a bag of peanuts from the vendor in the bright orange coat hawking them across the corner from the ballpark.  It was always amazing to me that everyone was so friendly.  Once in the ballpark, the Tiger Stadium crew took great pride in making everyone feel welcome, the service was personal and outstanding, and the overall effect was to make tens of thousands of strangers feel like family.  Throughout the day, the majority of the people we saw and interacted with were black, and the experience was extremely positive.  In the racially charged times in which I grew up, a ballgame in Detroit was an excellent and fun way to teach basic human relations, and the dads were determined that a riot wasn't going to undermine this.

Plans were made to go to a game sooner rather than later in 1968, and so on the first Saturday after school was out, June 8, we found ourselves on the bus and headed for Detroit to see the Tigers take on the Cleveland Indians.  Mickey Lolich against "Sudden" Sam McDowell.  Not bad.  The trip to Detroit went as usual.  It was a bright, sunny day and we stopped at the rest area near Brighton and enjoyed our customary pregame picnic of fried chicken.  From here it was on to Detroit and Tiger Stadium in great anticipation of the day that lie ahead.

The first thing out of the ordinary that day was when we boys caught that awesome first glimpse of the playing field looking out along the third baseline.  We began instinctively making our way towards the upper deck, and our customary place above the Tigers' dugout, when one of the dads whistled and motioned us to go the other way, and we began making our way towards the left field corner.  This was strange, but Tiger Stadium had no bad seats except those behind the posts, so we were all good with this unexpected change of venue.

We soon found ourselves in left field, in the lower deck, and became aware that our block of forty seats or so were in the midst of the predominantly black cheering section for left fielder Willie Horton.  This proved a little awkward at first.  We weren't the only white people in the section, but we were the only group of forty or more small town fathers and sons, and we did stand out.  There was a black man in a plaid shirt wearing a tattered Tigers cap seated next to our group, and as we moved past him to find our seats, one of the dads said, "We're down here from Alma to see the game today.  We're all Willie Horton fans, and we wanted these boys to get the chance to see their hero close up."  That was all it took.  And it was true enough.  I have never met a Tigers fan who was not a Willie Horton fan, and these Willie Horton fans were largely folks from the neighborhood around the ballpark. Some knew Willie personally, and most attended games regularly, and we found this to be an exciting part of city life that we could relate to.  As fellow Willie Horton fans, we suddenly found ourselves a part of this extended family of Tigers fans, and it felt pretty special.

During batting practice, Willie shagged balls in left field and would occasionally toss one up into the stands to the delight of the kids waiting for them.  We realized soon enough that the love the fans showered down upon him was clearly reciprocated.  We white boys talked baseball with the black boys and found it to be a universal language.  In fact, this is where I first heard the legend of Willie out on the streets during the riot saving the ballpark.  The white dads made a point of striking up friendly conversations with the black dads, and I noticed one of them exchange cigars with the man in the plaid shirt and well-worn cap, and they laughed and chatted amiably as they shared each other’s smokes.  I saw one of our dads come back from the beer vendor with the limit of two and hand one to his black neighbor.  The black dads and white dads took turns doing this throughout the game, and nobody ended up needing to be carried from the stadium that day, though there would have been lots of comrades to do so had it become necessary.  Black or white, it's not like they were the "Greatest Generation" for nothing.

It was a great day and a great game.  Lolich beat McDowell 3 to 1 and pitched a complete game, which was not so unusual then.  We joined the Horton faithful in their personalized chant of "Hit that ball, Wille!" and Willie responded with an RBI single that made our section of the park go particularly berserk.  And when Willie trotted back out to left field at the end of the inning, we were standing and cheering with everybody else, and we felt like we belonged because we did. 

In 1968, Willie Horton led the Tigers in hitting.  They would win the American League Pennant and go on to take the World Series over the highly touted St. Louis Cardinals in one of the great classic comebacks of all time.  And it was Willie Horton who made the pivotal play that turned the tide of the series to Detroit when he threw Lou Brock out at the plate in game 5.  Often called the "the biggest defensive play in Tiger's history," it allowed the Tigers to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and after being down 3 games to 1, they would go on to take the series, as Lolich would out duel Bob Gibson in a game 7 that was one for the ages.  Little more than a year after Detroiters had taken to the streets in violence, Detroiters would once again take to the streets, but this time in jubilation.  This time it would be to cheer Willie Horton and the Tigers in a parade down Woodward Avenue to celebrate not merely a World Series victory, but the victory of the city itself over the adversity of the year before.

The 1968 baseball season didn't heal the wounds that had resulted in the Detroit Riot of 1967, but it sure did go a long way toward easing the pain, and it played a huge role in awakening both blacks and whites to the reality that if the city was going to survive and heal, it was going to take cooperation and teamwork to make it happen, not strife and division.  A bunch of small town, outstate dads and sons learned this lesson at a baseball game in Detroit, and in retrospect, I'm sure the black dads at the park that day picked up on what our dads were trying to do and reciprocated.  And the black sons present learned the same valuable lesson we did.  In the reaction of their sons to the Detroit Riot of 1967, our dads saw a reflection of their own racist attitudes and it was pretty ugly.  They decided to "put the teach on us," to use an old baseball expression, and I think they learned something in the process themselves.  Like Willie would later say about that night of July 23, 1967, "Maybe that was the night I embraced my community for the first time as an adult."  In the aftermath of the riot, I think a lot of folks, both black and white, stepped up and did the same, and my story merely relates one experience of how this worked in practice.  

Somewhere in the midst of the white flight and the loss of wealth and prestige, and in spite of the fact that even Motown left town, Detroit found its soul again.  It is a rebound city that survived a week in July 47 years ago and the ensuing aftermath, and though reinventing itself in this post-industrial age remains a work in progress, it is a work that is getting done because people of goodwill of all colors are hard at work at making it happen.  Tiger Stadium is long gone, but Comerica Park is full most games, and, all summer long, the millions who visit the new ballpark file past a statue paying tribute to Willie Horton -- Willie Horton, who is neither gone nor forgotten in Detroit.  He remains that rarest of heroes whose feet are not made of clay, prompting the late sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, Joe Falls, to aptly observe that "Willie Horton is Detroit. Detroit is Willie Horton."  And that speaks well of both.  Greektown with its casino and great restaurants, and the restored Fox Theater district with Comerica Park and the Lions' Ford Field, give visitors a taste of the old Detroit and a vision of the new Detroit that is rising from its ashes.  And Detroit remains a lively city of great warmth and friendly Midwestern hospitality, which takes out of towners who are used to its hard-nosed reputation, and image as a symbol of urban blight, quite by surprise.  Detroit has its own gritty charm.  Ask the lot attendant how much he wants to park your car and he may say, "Twenty dollars.  Thirty if you want it to be here when you get back."  It's an old joke.  I can remember when in the lots around Tiger Stadium it was three dollars to park and five if you wanted your car back.  Detroit still has issues with crime and poverty, and there are areas that it's smart to stay away from. But downtown people want to earn your money, not steal it.

When a city's population falls to less than half of what it once was, and the "plain damn money" is gone, the decayed infrastructure, abandoned neighborhoods and ruined buildings of the old city make for a bleak and surreal landscape.  In more recent years, this feature of Detroit has been exploited and used as a drawing card for those filming movies like RoboCop and Brick Mansions about the dystopian, post-apocalyptic world that one day may become more reality than science fiction for the rest of the nation, just as it already has in Detroit.  The Detroit Riot of 1967 lives as an historical symbol of this economic apocalypse that has already struck industrial Detroit, and the resurgence of a more humble, and yet in many ways more vibrant Detroit, gives evidence to the truth that this kind of thing that terrifies and terrorizes other cities in the United States can be survived, and even overcome. 

Picture by Loavesofbread
Maybe the lesson of Detroit today is that the future is only as dystopian as we make it -- or allow it to be.  And maybe the lesson of Detroit in 1967 is that sometimes a city has to lose its mind if it's going to find its heart.  That heart was demonstrated on the baseball field, and the way the story is usually told, it was the city that came to reflect the heart of their 1968 World Champion Tigers.  In truth, and as demonstrated in the person of Detroit's own Willie Horton, it was the Tigers who came to reflect the heart of the beleaguered city they played for, and so prophetically came back against all odds -- just as the cream that is the heart of Detroit continues to rise slowly through the dirty and sour milk bottle of an earlier and more unhappy time.  And, as an aside, the fans who show up these days at Comerica Park to express their disappointment in the currently foundering 2014 Tigers do so because this team of overpriced and overrated players, picked by most to win it all, go to live in some place they think is better when the season is done, and their hearts just aren't in the city at all.  They just don't get it.

In light of what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, that is the purpose behind me relating this childhood tale of mine.  Once this time of tribulation has passed, will they get it?  Once the anger gives way to sorrow, will they gather together in community and overcome and forgive -- move forward and take their future back from the violence of the present?  I suspect they will.  In the aftermath, there will be the many who will rise up and embrace their community for the first time as adults, and they will take it back from the few.  As long as humans live in a society in which some hold authority over others, there will be those who rebel against it and those who abuse it, and it will lead to tragedy.  For every police officer who kills an unarmed suspect, there are countless others who diffuse similar situations, and they don't make the news doing this.  Police are not the messianic heroes of 9/11 any more than they are the despotic villains of the Michael Brown incident, and just as in the Algiers Motel incident in Detroit in 1967, the tensions and trials and traumas of the streets can lead to tragedy and horror.  Like the rest of us, those in authority are human, and those who rise to the occasion and do the job correctly are those who put their humanity ahead of their authority, and those who don't commit atrocities. 

In the end, it's not legislation or punishment and retribution that fixes human relations, it's compassion, maturity and love.  It's having the faith in oneself, the faith in others, and the faith in God necessary to embrace our communities as adults.  Jesus' most simple command to us is that we love one another, yet it has proven to be the most difficult thing to accomplish.  And it brings us so much pain.  

"Happiness and joy surround my life these days. Along with working for the Detroit Tigers, I have the privilege of confessing the name of my Lord Jesus Christ. I find my daily strength in God’s Word. I have found a peace in my life. I’m closer to my team, my family and my God. My life seems complete." 

Perhaps they need to hear this in Ferguson.  I know they're Cardinal fans there, but I think they can relate as well as Detroiters, and all folks everywhere, to the simple fact that if we would truly love God and one another as He would have us do; if we would share the wealth and the knowledge of this love in such a way that the equality we all talk about as the ultimate American virtue would become the ultimate American reality, then there wouldn't be any more violence like in Detroit in 1967, or in Ferguson in 2014.  Happiness and joy would surround our lives in those days, and our lives would seem more complete.  And maybe one day those who would follow us into this kinder and gentler world would point to us and say, "It's not like they were the 'Greatest Generation' for nothing."

Phil Ropp

Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.