By Scott M. Larson
Savannah Morning News

First, it was the Yankees. Now, it’s Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson.

Robert E. Lee can’t catch a break.

Johnson booted the 133-year-old portrait of the Confederate general from Savannah City Council chambers. A second portrait of Confederate officer and former Savannah Mayor John F. Wheaton met the same fate.

The portraits’ sizable footprints, removed Saturday, will make way for new technology – specifically, television monitors and cameras to make it easier for the public to consume council’s actions.

But it was Johnson’s actions that consumed the council early Thursday after Alderman Ellis Cook forcefully objected to Johnson’s move during a meeting that was supposed to be devoted to fine-tuning next year’s budget.

"Those pictures are part of the history of the building," Cook said, who stayed only long enough to voice his objections before leaving to take his wife to the doctor. "I’m disappointed to say the least that this council was not involved."

Cook’s arguments that the council should have voted on the move was supported by Aldermen Clifton Jones and Tony Thomas. Cook believes his argument is bolstered by the fact that a past city council commissioned and paid $1,212 for the Lee portrait.

It would be simple enough if that was the extent of the matter.

But the ghosts of slavery, the Civil War, discrimination and civil rights make this more than a simple situation.

Regardless of the practical reasons for the move, a black mayor removed pictures of soldiers in an army whose cornerstone, it was said, was slavery.

Thomas quietly said race played a factor in the decision. Cook said it was possible, but added he would never accuse Johnson of that.

As the budget meeting ended, Johnson cautioned council members that some may make racial hay out of the situation. The complicated history of race relations in Savannah was not a factor in the decision, Johnson said.

However, for the last year Johnson – a member of Savannah’s civil rights movement in the 1960s – faced those portraits of the Confederate soldiers each time he led a council meeting.

"I can tell you that I’m not unhappy that they are not hanging in there," he said.

Because of size and design limitations in the room, the cameras that record council meetings can’t cover the entire room. As a result, some aldermen are often left out of shots. Additionally, when presentations are made by Metropolitan Planning Commission staff, there isn’t a television monitor where everyone can see maps or other visual presentations.

That is why the portraits had to be moved – to make way for a new television system, Johnson said.

The portraits were temporarily moved to the Savannah Civic Center on Saturday and will soon be delivered to the Savannah History Museum, where they will stay.

"We are putting them in a place where they can be seen," Johnson said.

During the meeting, Cook was skeptical of Johnson’s motivations.

"I don’t think that was the primary reason for taking them down," he said. Cook referred to Johnson for the real reason, but the mayor remained silent.

"Because Otis didn’t want them up there," Cook continued.

At one point during the Thursday meeting, Johnson pointed to a television reporter who showed up and wondered if this whole confrontation was a set-up for publicity. Few local television reporters have attended budget hearings over the last month.

Johnson acknowledged that he did it without council consensus.

"I accept that, and I accept that reprimand," Johnson said.

In the end, council came to a consensus that the pictures should be preserved.

"Now let’s move on with the budget," Johnson said.

© 2004

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