Jackie Robinson. Muhammad Ali. Jim Brown.
You hear those names, and you feel something. You react to their legacy of athletic dominance, social awareness and media attention, and then you recall the likes of Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe. Your subconscious also drifts to the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
Much of the world hears "Willie Horton" and shrugs. OK, some associate the name with the shadowy image of a Massachusetts convict used to scare voters during the 1988 U.S. presidential election. But there is that other Willie Horton, the one you should know, the one you should cheer, the one who remains an icon in his native Detroit, where he has a statue after he spent much of the 1960s helping slug the hometown Tigers into prominence.
This Willie Horton also is huge throughout Michigan. Courtesy of a bill passed in 2004 by the state legislature, every Oct. 18 is declared his day. He joins Rosa Parks as one of just four people with such a distinction in Michigan history. He was honored by lawmakers because of his contributions as a player and a person. Among other things, he once worked with Detroit police officers in the early 1990s to broker a peace with rival gang members. After two days huddled in a cell with one of the gang leaders, Horton said, "The young man told me, 'Mr. Horton, I love you, all my people love you, but if this doesn't work, I'll have to take you and your whole family out.'"
Get the picture? Detroit hugs Horton, and the same goes for Michigan, but everybody else has a ways to go. In fact, the world should hear "Willie Horton" and shout, and it should do so with joy.
At 72, this guy remains as focused on advancing humanity as he was in July 1967, when he bolted from Tiger Stadium in full uniform after a game to address those in the middle of a riot. When Horton speaks, you listen. He has the voice of a Southern Baptist preacher, and his unofficial sermons link the present to the past through actions as well as words.
We talked the other day about the horrific killing of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church, along with the civil unrest in America during the past few months, stretching from Ferguson, Mo., to Cleveland to Baltimore.
We talked about solutions. We talked about how Horton already is part of the solution.
"I spoke to [Tigers owner Mike Ilitch] last summer, and I told him about my vision, and it involved connecting the young with the old in positive ways in terms of going from the cradle to the grave," said Horton, a special assistant with the Tigers these days.
He explained his vision to me through his heavy baritone voice in Atlanta at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. He was in town as one of the recipients for the Hank Aaron Champion For Justice Award, and he was the definitive choice. For one, there was his first Spring Training with the Tigers in 1961, when he got off the bus from Detroit in Lakeland, Fla., and couldn't get a cab. "I didn't know they didn't serve blacks, and I had to walk from the bus station to Tiger Town (three miles) carrying my duffel bag."
Then, after arriving at the Tigers' spring home, Horton had his first experience in The South with different water fountains for whites and "colored." He laughed, saying, "I wasn't going to drink from the colored one, because I thought, 'Man, that might be poisoned.'"
Over the next few weeks, months and years, Horton corresponded with other African-American players, primarily the late Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs. "He used to call me every other day, and he would say, 'It's a good day for two,' but he was talking in code. Finally, Ernie told me one day, 'What that means is that we [as black players] have to be doubly good to be on the field.'"
Horton discovered that in a hurry.
Along Horton's way to four All-Star Games and a 1968 World Series championship with the Tigers, featuring his sizzling bat and his arm in left field nailing St. Louis Cardinals blur Lou Brock at the plate during a crucial moment, Horton was the only regular African-American starter for the Tigers from 1965 to 1974. Not a good look, especially not for one of the last Major League teams to integrate after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Then-Tigers owner Walter Briggs Sr. said he never would have an African-American player, and he died in 1956 without one. So, after more than a dozen years of nearly the same attitude during the post-Briggs regime, Horton bolted the Tigers for four days in early 1969. Few folks knew at the time that he was huddling with ownership and management to protest the franchise's refusal to add more African-Americans to the roster. A month after Horton's walkout, the Tigers called up African-American utility player Ike Brown from the Minors.
Still, nothing showed Horton's character more than that July weekend in 1967, when rioting began on a Saturday night in Detroit. The Tigers hosted the New York Yankees for a doubleheader the following afternoon, and Horton stood in left field studying his teammates, the visitors, the fans and something beyond the grandstands at Tiger Stadium.
"I kept seeing black smoke in the distance, and I thought it was just a fire somewhere," Horton said, and he was correct. It was carnage from the second of what would be five days of rioting that would take 43 lives and wound more than 1,000 other people. When the second game ended, Horton discovered in the clubhouse what was happening. "I was sitting there, getting ready to take a shower," Horton said, "and then I got to thinking. I just said to myself, 'Man, I've got to go.'"
Horton went, and he did so wearing everything he wore when he homered earlier that day against the Yankees. He parked among the rioters. He stood on a car, trying to calm the situation, but it didn't work. Not in the short run.
There were three more days of terror after Horton's heroics, and the violence even crept in the vicinity of his home in northwest Detroit, where his next-door neighbor was Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin stayed a block away. "I remember having to stay in the basement during that time," said Darryl Horton, 52, Willie's son, who is a regional manager in Atlanta for a clothing store for women.
As for the long run, Horton's role in what became known as the 12th Street Riot set the foundation for an improbable summer of peace in Detroit the following year. There also was the calming force that was the Tigers' magical ride to their 1968 World Series victory over the Cardinals, with Horton contributing much through his offense and his passion.
Now he can't separate 1968 from 1967, adding of the riots, "It was like a war was going on, and it was scary, but what I went through early in my career with the Tigers -- you know, having those talks with Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron and other players back in the day -- all of the things like that drew me to get involved.
"God puts you in these situations. You do them, because you have no control but to do what He says, and it's to help the lives of others."
There is Horton's vision, for instance. He wants to develop the blueprint for lasting coalitions across the country that features those from different backgrounds and various ages groups feeding off each other for success -- socially, financially and spiritually. His eyes brightened when discussing his "360" program based in Lakeland, Fla., and then he said with enthusiasm, "When I told Mr. Ilitch what I had in mind last summer, he said, 'Go for it.' I told him that, in my lifetime growing up, there were churches and schools that people had faith in, but in the last 30 or 40 years, folks have drifted away from having that kind of faith. So I wanted to go down to central Florida around Lakeland to have a summit. I wanted to connect the young and the old, with programs to benefit both, with sports as a way to pull them together. I started by meeting with more than 100-something churches.
"They beat me up at first. But I kept at it, telling them that my concept was to have them think about a baby with a tear and senior citizens with their arms stretched out. It started a conversation."
Horton took the conversation from the churches to the local school board and then to senior citizen facilities, social organizations and the mayor's office. The "360" program -- which is not even a year old -- is ambitious in scope, aiming to develop youth clinics, provide educational opportunities for kids and also help improve the lives of the older generation. Said Horton, "We've had more than 600 people and more than 40 organizations come together, and we didn't expect to be this far along for another year."
When Horton is involved, anything is possible. It's about time he got a standing ovation.