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Otis Johnson Fifty Years After Armstrong Desegregation

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SAVANNAH, GA -

It's been fifty years since Otis Johnson broke a barrier in Savannah, a big one. On June 12, 1963 he became the first African American to attend what was then Armstrong Junior College.

The former mayor took us on a tour of what was the downtown campus. He had enrolled in two classes, the first began at 6 p.m. "All this area was barricaded off," Johnson told me as he pointed toward the square opposite Forsyth Park. We walk along Bull Street to the corner of Gaston Street and he shows me the huge old mansion which was the administration building. "When I came up here, the barricades went up to Whittaker and there was a Savannah fire truck over there, just in case there was a riot of something," he says.

Johnson never dreamed that night that he would end up being the mayor of Savannah one day. He was only thinking about being a 21 year embarking on something that no one had ever dared to do, attend the all white school.

The night that Johnson took his first two classes, was the night that famed civil right leader Medgar Evers was gunned down at his home in Mississippi. I asked Johnson what it was like to return to the college the next day. "It was scary because you didn't know what would happen," he said. "But once you commit to something at least for me, I'm committed to it."

Johnson had been among a group of 65 African American students who had picked up applications to transfer to Armstrong. But as it turned out, he was the only one who followed through and made the application. "I didn't expect to be doing this by myself, but I learned a valuable lesson, if you believe in something be willing to do with a group of 1,000 or on your own," he told me.

Johnson says for the first six months few if any students acknowledged him. "Professors did but no students really, I called myself the 'Invisible Man' and it went on like that for months," he said.

He showed us what had been the student center (now an antique store down the block.) I asked him if he could go inside and eat. He said yes but he sat alone at a table. "But the good thing is that there were these black women working in there making the food and I could see the price on their faces when I came in," Johnson told me. "That kept me going along with support from the black community. Some people thought I was a hero for doing what other didn't have the nerve to do.

Johnson never dreamed the night he took his first class that he would go on to be the mayor of the city that had denied him access to the same classroom as white students. He believed in the Civil Rights movement and says after that June night so long ago, he's never looked back. "that was a good decision and a turning point in my life," he said.

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