Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson based his address during a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observance Wednesday at Fort Stewart not on King’s legendary “I Have A Dream” speech, but on King’s last book, prophetically titled “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community.” The book was published in 1967, one year before King’s assassination and decades before most of Johnson’s audience was born.
Johnson, who grew up during segregation, is Savannah’s 64th mayor and the second African American to hold the mayoral office in the Hostess City. He is a Navy veteran and a life-long educator. He served on the Savannah-Chatham Board of Education and retired as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Savannah State University in 2002. In addition, he said he has worked with youth through various organizations and foundations.
He apologized for sounding like “a retired professor,” yet seemed to effortlessly teach the crowd an important lesson.
The mayor urged his listeners — in the context of last weekend’s tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz., and increasingly negative and divisive political rhetoric of recent years — to move toward community and away from chaos by rejecting the factors that divide, such as racism, materialism and militarism, and begin to interact with one another “as human beings.”
He clarified later King was not against the military, he was opposed to empire building and colonialism. The mayor said King understood soldiers protect the U.S. from outside threats and protect America’s freedoms.
Johnson said Americans of all backgrounds can help actualize the slain civil rights leader’s dream of freedom, justice and equality for all people by being “strong and unified.”
He told a story of how as a Navy grunt, the lowest ranked seamen would sit in the back of the boat, the non-commissioned officers would sit in the middle and the commissioned officers would sit in the front, so that the highest ranked individuals could disembark first, and the rest would follow in order of rank.
“The important thing is we were in the same boat. It didn’t matter if we were in the front, the middle or the back — if the boat was going down, we were all going down together,” Johnson said.
Prior to Johnson’s keynote speech, young people from Mount Zion Memorial Chapel performed an inspirational interpretive dance and three Snelson-Golden Middle School students were recognized for winning a Fort Stewart essay contest based on the theme “Civil rights and what it means to me.”
3rd Infantry Division deputy commander Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips presented certificates to sixth-grader Raha Davis, eighth-grader Darius Kitchings and seventh-grader Alexia Clayton.
Phillips said he was pleased local youth participated in the observance program, “communicating (King’s) values through their art.”
When asked how soldiers can best follow King’s example of community service, the general said soldiers can serve by “being good parents and spouses, getting involved in the community, voting — that’s important,” and by patronizing local businesses.