Desegregation at 50

Otis Johnson on his days at Armstrong

The Black American Movement at Armstrong College in 1973 included a young Otis Johnson.

On a late afternoon in June of 1963, a lone black man made his way to his first classes at what was then Armstrong Junior College near Monterey Square.

Mockingbirds flitted on a filigreed fence. The grand magnolias swayed in the summer breeze. Wearing a suit and tie, the young man climbed the steps of the regal gray mansion at the south end of Forsyth Park and went inside.

Then, in spite of the traffic barricades along Gaston Street and state troopers outfitted with anti-riot gear, not much else happened.

Well, not that day, anyway.

Plenty else transpired that monumental summer of '63. The Civil Rights Movement had been in full swing in Savannah for three years, with sit-ins at local lunch counters and the famously effective Broughton Street boycott led by NAACP organizer W.W. Law. Many locals joined the national momentum that August to march in Washington, DC, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved the country to tears with his dream.

For the worse, NAACP Activist Medgar Evers was killed by a white supremacist in Mississippi. Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood like a imbecilic sentry at the door of his state's university to block to black students. In September, four little girls were killed in that horrific Birmingham church bombing.

Compared to the tumult of the rest of the South, Savannah's reaction to the desegregation of Armstrong and two of its high schools that summer was downright tepid. Those first brave iconoclasts who crossed the color line were less welcomed than quietly ignored, and those who weren't thrilled about their presence didn't feel the need to stir up the kind of drama that warranted a LIFE magazine cover.

Be it out of dignity or too much humidity, the race riot volcanics of other places have never much been Savannah's style.

"It was benign, I didn't feel any hostility," remembers Otis Johnson of the moment he made history as the first African American student at what had been in its entire history an academic institution only for white people. "But I did get the 'Invisible Man' treatment for a long time."

The streets did get sparky one night that July, when police unleashed tear gas on a group of marchers frustrated with the disingenuous promises of local businessowners. The National Guard was called out, but apart from a few broken windows and a church fire no one ever took credit for, the damage was minimal. Though it must have been a terrifying experience, no one was seriously hurt. The demonstrations simmered down a few days later as white businesses met demands to integrate theaters, bowling alleys and hotels.

Back then, the lack of fiery conflict was perceived as a victory for the black community and the many progressively-minded white folks who marched with them. Native Savannahian, writer and political activist Miriam Center remembers a time of joyful suffrage and mass meetings attended by people of all shades.

"It was all very peaceful," says Center, now in her 80s. "There was this sense that we were all part of the same fight — the fight for civil rights."

But for others, might that shaky stillness also have been attributed to a certain willful apathy, a superficial way to avoid any distasteful confrontations but still maintain their distasteful prejudices in private?

When mandatory bussing made desegregation more widespread in 1971, there was a mass exodus of white people out of the public school system and out of the city center, spurring an economic downturn that lasted decades.

Dr. King once called Savannah "the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line," but when I moved here in 2006, there were two elementary schools next door to each other, one mostly white, the other mostly black, an embarrassment only recently rectified.

Sure, our city council may now reflect a friendly balance of black and white, but one only need be barely conscious to see that — with a few notable exceptions — our neighborhoods and schools are still fairly homogenous.

Fifty years after desegregation, we're still throwing shade on the deeper issues.

For all the giant steps those Civil Rights foot soldiers made, other states uphold stop-and-frisk practices and voter ID laws that target people of color. The fractured discussions surrounding the tragedy of Trayvon Martin and vilification of Paula Deen have shown us that our discomfort around race is just a nick below the skin — where, duh, we all bleed the same.

"Race is still one of the most difficult things to talk about," remarked Johnson as we strolled around his alma mater last week to discuss the plans to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Desegregation in Savannah Aug. 24-25.

Difficult, shmifficult. Why? Why in this day of mainstream hip hop and our black President, can we not discuss diversity without knitting our brows? Why can't Miley Cyrus be the awkward twerking girl without it being political? Why we can't we, to borrow a phrase, all just get along with our bad selves?

Because, dammit, 50 years later, there are still those quiet prejudices tucked away in our systems and institutions that tip the scales one way for some, and the wrong way for others.

And still others just rise: Johnson, of course, went on to graduate from Armstrong, earn degrees from the University of Georgia and Brandeis University and become one of Savannah's most storied — and controversial — mayors.

Though he once roiled up constituents with the statement that he wanted the next city manager "to look like me," it seems that retirement and the subsequent disgrace of Rochelle Small-Toney have tempered him.

(On second thought, the title of his forthcoming book IS From N***r to Mr. Mayor, so clearly the man has plenty of bite left.)

We sat on a bench in Forsyth Park to dig deeper into one of America's most persistent social ills.

"We have here in Savannah an intersection of race and class," he explained. "We have poorer neighborhoods, which are mostly black. Schools are resegregating around the principle of magnet and charter schools, which take the highest-performing black students out of their neighborhood schools. Then those neighborhood schools become even more challenged."

This is evident in the city's high schools, where test scores and graduation rates may appear to reflect racial divisions. Johnson points out that socioeconomics play the most vital role — because at the end of the day, it all comes back to poverty.

Rather than ever more paternalistic social services, he believes the way to level the educational field for all of Savannah's students in 2013 is to start earlier with more early childhood development programming.

"White or black, the way kids start off from birth, way before they even get to school, working class kids come to school at a disadvantage," he mused. "As young people from kindergarten on interact with each other, it's more difficult to maintain the stereotypes."

That's one topic he'll broach at the 50th Anniversary of Desegregation celebration this weekend. Beginning with a Saturday afternoon symposium at Savannah High called "Reflections on the Past, A Glimpse of the Future," Johnson and other committee members want to recognize the many Savannahians involved in the Civil Rights Movement, including current mayor Edna Jackson as well as the lesser-known names.

Sunday will bring one of those good ol' fashioned Mass Meetings at First African Baptist Church like they held in 1963, led by community matriarch Mercedes Wright Arnold. The point is to sing, clap and keep the conversation moving forward.

Johnson reiterated several times that all of Savannah is invited — and that the victories of the Civil Rights movement are all of ours, black and white. He wants to see Center and the other white folks who pounded the pavement with him.

Even if we weren't even twinkles in our parents' eyes in 1963, perhaps shaking hands with the heroes who Dr. King called the "ground crew" of the good fight will snap us out of the torpidity that keeps us from questioning the unfairness and injustice we see in 2013.

Sitting on the park bench, Johnson and I agreed that we humans are provincial by nature, that sometimes it makes sense for us to segregate ourselves into our known pods of family and community.

But the long-term solutions of racial awkwardness can only come through constructive engagements, through our everyday interactions.

If we truly want to cross the divide, we're going to have to be willing to show up, sit down and be a part of the conversation.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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