The Detroit that first welcomed Bing in the fall of 1966 after the Pistons tabbed him with the second overall selection in that year’s NBA draft was a smoldering powder keg. What would become Bing’s adopted hometown was already in trouble.
“I could sense the increasing tension,” Bing said. “I wasn’t unfamiliar with the symptoms, having grown up in an urban environment in Washington, an increasingly predominant black community with a police force that was predominantly white. There was a high level of sensitivity.”
Bing wasn’t fearful of police harassment during his early times in Detroit, but he wasn’t naïve enough to think that it couldn’t happen if he found himself in the wrong situation at the wrong time (i.e., a situation that could lead to a wrong interpretation by law enforcement). It wasn’t as though everybody in the city recognized his face wherever he went.
His public profile improved after he won NBA Rookie of the Year honors in the spring of 1967; however, Bing knew that unless he walked around town constantly wearing his Pistons’ number 21 jersey, it was unlikely that anybody would make the connection that he was the rising NBA basketball star.
If the police found him in a situation that could be interpreted the wrong way, he would just be another black guy getting handcuffed and tossed into the back of a police cruiser. Bing figured it was just a question of time before that powder keg blew up.
And it did in the early-morning hours of Sunday, July 25, 1967, after Detroit police raided what was called a “blind pig,” an after-hours establishment that illegally served alcohol. Blind pigs were also havens for fomenting rage over the growing perception that the white Detroit police force had declared “war” on the city’s black residents.
After the raid, the anger immediately spilled out onto the streets. What began as shouting soon turned into throwing rocks and bottles at neighboring businesses. And that soon turned into setting that section of Detroit on fire.
The fuse was lit on what would become—at that time in history—the worst urban riot ever in America.
Bing and his family didn’t leave their house on Preston Street on Detroit’s east side. They were several miles away from the riot’s flashpoint, the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue.
When the thermostat and individual temperatures run equally high in a hot summer, it doesn’t usually require much encouragement to light a fuse—especially when it involves a lily-white police department that had increasingly drawn criticism for its treatment of a city population that had increasingly turned black. People hit the streets, transistor radios hanging from their ears, getting the latest news about what was happening.
As the situation continually eroded through that first day, one of Bing’s neighbors offered use of one of his rifles if Bing were interested. He declined. Everyone worried that the violence might spread. Flames spit into the thick afternoon air. Stores were randomly looted. Rioters even broke into gun shops, normally closed on the Sabbath, arming themselves with weapons for what looked like the onset of anarchy in those initial hours.
“People were worried about what might happen if this situation got worse,” Bing said. “It wasn’t like you could step outside and see something burning right in front of you. But it was very upsetting for my family. You don’t want to think of your home being threatened, and there were plenty of people willing to defend their property through any means necessary.”
The irony was that 10 years earlier, white homeowners in Detroit were the ones mounting a defense of their private property “through any means necessary” from the influx of black residents. Now black homeowners were determined to protect their investment from those threatening its security.
Mel Farr had just signed his rookie contract with the Lions and was just days away from his first NFL training camp. He had made his first big purchase; he had bought a Jaguar two-seater sports car in Ann Arbor and was heading east on the I-94 freeway. Farr could faintly see charcoal-gray plumes from the distance. The clouds grew thicker the closer he got to the city. His new NFL home was engulfed in flames.
“It was more than a little scary when you started to learn exactly what was going on,” Farr recalled.
Lem Barney had also just signed his rookie NFL contract. He was driving to town from his native Mississippi when he received word from the Lions’ organization that the players shouldn’t meet at the team’s headquarters at Tiger Stadium because of safety concerns.
The Tigers played at Tiger Stadium that Sunday afternoon. Billowing plumes of smoke could be seen from the stands. The Tigers were scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles on Monday, but the team, in conjunction with Major League Baseball, moved the game to Baltimore. It was deemed unsafe in Detroit. After the Sunday afternoon game, players were instructed to head immediately for the airport for the trip to Baltimore. That bothered many of the players; a lot of them lived in Detroit and wanted to check on the safety of their families.
Tigers’ outfielder Willie Horton didn’t heed the team’s warnings. He grew up in Detroit, starred at Northwestern High School, and became one of the franchise’s first significant black signings five years earlier. Horton thought that he might compel the rioters to cease if they saw him in his Tigers uniform. He immediately drove to the most dangerous areas. Horton couldn’t just sit still as his hometown burned. His actions, though riskily impulsive, nonetheless spoke to the impact that the professional athlete had on the people of Detroit. Horton recalled that when some recognized him as he walked down 12th Street, suddenly the conversation shifted from looting clothing stores to wondering if the Tigers could win the American League pennant for the first time in almost 20 years.
But this wasn’t Bing’s hometown. That first day of the riots was the first time that Bing entertained ideas of uprooting his family from the actual city limits and moving them to the suburbs, joining the steady procession of families dashing for the city’s borders.
“You tried forgetting about what was happening right outside your doorstep, but it became increasingly difficult,” Bing said. “We played right downtown, and there were times that even players were concerned about their personal safety leaving Cobo Arena to go home.”
Nor was Detroit home to Farr. “We were paid to be here,” said Farr, “and because of that, you’re going to look at it a little differently.”