Savannah Morning News
Jan. 15, 2017
Otis Johnson is an academic. He’s a pragmatist. He’s been around the block a few times or more. At age 74, Savannah’s two-term major who’s headed dozens of boards, studies and/or initiatives, also knows something about compromise and public perception. Which is why he decided to change the title of his new memoir. His working title read, “From Nigger to Mr. Mayor.” Now the book is called, “From ‘N Word’ to Mr. Mayor.” The “N” word, he writes in the introduction, has too much power and means too many different things to different people.
No matter. While Johnson chose the politically correct road for the title he doesn’t leave anything out of the book’s content. He does not mince words. In some ways, he might as well have gone with his instincts and chosen the “N” word. Always known for speaking his mind, he backs up his opinions with careful analysis and hardcore data. In the end he doesn’t pull any punches about what it was like to grow up in a segregated town where he heard the ethnic slur plenty of times – when he dared to ride a city bus or walk through Forsyth Park as a child; when he removed the portraits of two confederate officers, Gen. Robert E. Lee and Col. John F. Wheaton from the city council chambers in city hall because he was tired of looking at people who condoned slavery; when, as the mayor, he refused to grant someone a favor, or when he hired Savannah’s first black city manager, Rochelle Small-Toney.
At a time when the country’s first black president prepares to give up the oval office, Johnson’s timely book is a first-rate primer and a reminder of what he and President Obama faced and continue to face – growing up in a tight, supportive family who had high expectations for him and his brother, Paul, while the surrounding white community didn’t give either of them the time of day. Johnson has wanted to write this book for years. He’s kept meticulous notes. As someone who has earned a doctorate in social policy and management at Brandeis University, he’s a researcher at heart, an intellectual. He knows about footnotes, attributions and citations. He loves history and it shows.
But it was the 2002 death of W.W. Law, a beloved and iconic figure in Savannah’s black – and civil rights – community that motivated him to tell his story, the whole story. To Johnson’s great disappointment Law “did not record or write down enough of what he knew about Savannah. He took most of his knowledge about the city and its black community with him to the grave.” Law’s death, Johnson writes, “had the effect of burning down a library.” Johnson, who had a front row seat in the fight for integration – or in what he calls “socialization in a Jim Crow society” – was not going to let that happen to him. The text, the endnotes, the index – printed in the smallest of fonts, maybe six – are thorough.
Johnson was 12 when Brown v. Board of Education passed, nine years before Savannah’s public schools desegregated. Pushed by grandparents who valued education and a curious mind, Johnson, whose sights were set on becoming a band director and loves jazz, loved school. When he couldn’t afford college after high school he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. But it wasn’t for him. He returned home and attended Savannah State University for a year but in 1963, with Law’s urging, he became the first black person to attend Armstrong State University, which was then located in the historic district.
In wrenching detail Johnson describes the extreme measures the city took to ensure his safety as he walked to class. Since few white students would acknowledge him, he took to calling himself the “invisible man.” But “since I am an introverted, intuitive, thinking and judgmental person” – something he learned from the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator tests – “I really did not have a need to socialize while on campus.”
Academia was a good fit for Johnson. He loved studying. He was stimulated by his classes. He always wanted more. After Armstrong, then a two-year school, he set his sights on the University of Georgia. He joined a handful of black students on campus, one of them NPR reporter Charlayne Hunter. None of it was easy. But he did well. He graduated. Once again he wanted more. This time he entered a graduate program in social work at Clark Atlanta University. That didn’t do it either. After teaching at Savannah State University for a while he took a two-year leave of absence and went to Brandeis University in Boston. That’s where he learned racism existed in the north as well as the south.
Johnson would teach for 21 years at Savannah State University, where he served as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. He headed the Youth Futures Authority, sat on the Savannah-Chatham Board of Education and was elected to two terms on the Savannah City Council. As mayor he held 32 active give-and-take quarterly town hall meetings and was smart enough to woo then-journalist Bret Bell to the city’s public information office.
But it was a near-death heart attack in Memphis in 2006 that pressed him to put the pedal to the metal. Johnson returned to Savannah a changed man. He limited the meetings he attended and started to put his eye on a larger picture, which included The Healthy Savannah Project, an impressive program that continues today. This tale – the need to record – may have started then. It’s not an easy book to read. As is his wont, Johnson doesn’t shy away from unpleasantness. We need to pay attention. It’s the story about a man, but it’s also the story about a city.