A mayor’s memoir, the good, the bad, the ugly

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.


Batten down the hatches and meet your neighbors

Savannah Morning News

Jan. 8, 2017

And now we move forward, Chanukah dreidels and other tchotchkes safely tucked away in their new home (the blessedly empty Nyakers tin of the thinnest and best ginger snaps on the planet), denuded Christmas trees mulched (or lying on their side in the lane, so sad), holiday card addresses waiting to be copied and/or pasted in our address books (the kind you hold in your hand, the ultimate record of old phone numbers, old addresses, birthdays and names of people who no longer speak or people who are no longer alive, may they rest in peace).

And now we breathe, the calendar open, the fridge empty of cheesy squash casserole and leftover lasagna, the red and green porch lights turned off or removed, the mail back to circulars and bills. No more morning scoops of lemon curd (or pimento cheese) on top of our oat groats. No more butter cookies dunked in coffee. No more – boo hoo – eggnog, the real kind.  No more afternoon binges of “The Crown.” No more entreaties for contributions (seriously, it’s so much easier to just hand off cash – to an artist, a poet, a scientist, an environmental activist, an organic farmer, someone living on the street rather than sending in a check to an organization that rewards you with requests for more, more and still more. It’s so unbecoming).

Now, back from Austin, back from Birmingham, back from Dubai, back from NYC, back from Louisville, back from Cuba, we pick up where we left off, even if leaves still cling to the sweetgum trees, the very ones our leading city leaders thought would be a good neighborhood addition, forgetting about those pesky, pernicious sweetgum balls that take every opportunity to trip us up. (OK, so the squirrels love those balls and that’s not all bad. The other day I watched one of those acrobatic wonders balance on a chain link fence and gnaw, nibble and dig away at one of those spiky, spiny gumballs. Amazing.)

Then there are the buds on the sorrel plants. They can’t harden and produce seeds for next year’s cop until the temperatures drop, which it seems reluctant to do. Until then they take up valuable real estate that could be growing something else.

Don’t get me wrong. Breaks are good. Holidays are good. In a plethora of parties, I’ve met kindergarten teachers missing their flocks, doctors who nod when I say the best insurance a person could have is to eat foods the color of amethysts (purple sweet potatoes) or magenta (beets), transplants from Los Angeles who send back video sounds of rain on their car windshields to drought-weary Californians, more transplants, this time from San Francisco, who delight in Savannah’s affordable housing and roomy backyards and give you a box of chocolates after serving up a sumptuous meal.

In between the aberration known as December and the reality of January, life ambles along in all its ups and down. We read and respond to CaringBridge journal entries from people fighting cancer (the latest one titled “Still in the Clinker”). We cross our fingers (and toes) for people looking for jobs, clawing their way through school, trying to shrink tumors. We struggle to find the words for people who have lost children to illness, drugs or accidents. We cry for joy when an unexpected adoption occurs. Forget Carrie Fisher or Debby Reynolds (didn’t she already die?). We sit stunned when hearing about the death of a fellow journalist, once so lively and focused.

And while the leading candidates for the word-of-the-year are alt-right, surreal, bigly and “irregardless” – as well as “post-truth,” as when emotion, personal opinion and fake news trumps (ahem) facts and objectivity – I would have to nominate the term “handler.” Have you noticed? “Handler,” a concept that never entered my consciousness, seems to be everywhere in our new spy-driven, privacy-challenged, computer-invaded era, starting with my new television obsession, “Madame Secretary,” where handlers move plots. Move over “Father Knows Best”: The McCords – the power couple on “Madame Secretary” – have become our new Ozzie and Harriet. This series, which lists Morgan Freeman as one of a handful of executive producers, always seems to be one step ahead of the latest conflict on the world stage.

How do they do it?

Can everything be programmed or preordained?

Batten down the hatches. Meet your neighbors. Get ready to fight. 2017 promises to be a bumpy ride.