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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 - 11:00pm

Officer Recalls Integrating Savannah Police

On May first, 1947, the City of Savannah hired nine black police officers.

In doing so, it became one of the first integrated police departments in the South.

The youngest and last surviving member is John White.

White, 88, still recalls the discrimination that pushed him from a young age to become one of the South's earliest black policemen.

When he was eight-years old, he saw a black man run up to a white police officer.

The man told the officer that someone had shot at him.

"And he touched the policeman on the shoulder," White says. "The policeman turned around and hit him. He knocked his eyes out. He said that he didn't want no 'N' putting his hands on him. And I said that if I ever can become a policeman, I would try to stop the inequities."

White got the opportunity to become an officer after Savannah's police chief at the time, James Rogers, visited Miami, where police had integrated a few months before Savannah.

White says Chief Rogers was at first hesitant to hire African-Americans.

"He said, 'I don't want to personally. But since you all are comin' on the police force, S.O.B. if you do and S.O.B. if you don't. So, you all be the best damn S.O.B.'s we have,'" White says. "Six months later, he said that he wished the other 109 police officers were half as good as the nine black police officers."

Savannah's black officers faced discrimination themselves.

They weren't allowed to arrest white citizens.

And White recalls when he and two white officers arrived at the scene of a car accident involving a white driver.

His fellow officers encouraged him to make an arrest.

"And one of them said, 'Well, you're free, black and 21. You make the ticket.' And I said, 'Well, I don't know how.' One of them said, 'Well, I'll show you how to make it.' And they didn't even know that we were supposed to call white officers for help," White says. "So, when we got to the court room that Monday morning, every policeman and his family was there. They wanted to know who that 'N' was that put a white man on the docket."

White served as Martin Luther King Jr.'s bodyguard when the civil rights leader spoke in Savannah.

He also received an award from F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover for arresting a serial killer.

Before chief Rogers died in 1948, Rogers asked the nine black officers be his pall-bearers.

The honor stopped, however, at the church door.

"We could take the body out the hearse and carry it up the steps," White says. "But we couldn't go in the church."

White retired in 1984 after 47 years of service and received later recognition from President Reagan and numerous government officials.

He turns 89 years old in October.

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