Title: Better Than Them: The Unmaking of an Alabama Racist
Author: S. McEachin Otts
Forward by Gaillard Frye
Publisher: NewSouth Books Pages: 158
Price: $23.95 (Paper)
Sixteen years ago Fred Hobson, one of our best commentators on Southern writing, published “But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative” (1999). He examined in that book the writings of a number of Southerners who had come to recognize and reject their own racism, and then explored their racism and its causes, often in memoirs. The experience was much like the religious conversion experience: emotionally powerful. After all, they felt themselves to be saving their own souls.
Hobson wrote about the works of Lillian Smith, Will Campbell, Willie Morris, Larry L. King, Pat Watters and others whose books were published in the ’40s through ’70s.
Now there seems to be a new wave of such memoirs, with the action set mainly during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Recently here I have talked about “Fear and What Follows” by Tim Parrish and “The Newspaper Boy” by Chervis Isom.
In “Better Than Them,” Mac Otts of Greensboro tells his story.
Not only had Otts grown up in segregated, bigoted Greensboro, one day, as a child, his beloved grandmother called him to her and whispered, “You are better than them. Don’t forget it.” Small wonder then that on July 16th of 1965, four months after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Otts stood at the curb on Main Street watching the first civil rights march in Greensboro with a tire iron in his hand—as he puts it: “Iron in my hands and my heart”—ready to do violence to peaceful strangers and fellow townspeople seeking the right to vote.
That fall, Otts would go on to the University, where, exposed to new ways of thinking, he would become a social worker and advocate for children’s rights.
Over time, Otts decided to explore the history of his family and his home town, to learn what forces shaped him and what other people were thinking in those tumultuous days.
Sincere as he is, Otts is not an accomplished writer and most of what he learns and passes on is not startling. The effects of slavery and Jim Crow lingered long and hard, he reminds us. Rural poverty has a powerful effect on race relations. Family pride “can be constructive. However, if pride can’t stand on its own without lowering others it is actually dependent.”
Otts had diabetes as a child; his father was alcoholic. The family had lost its fortune over time so low self-esteem contributed to racist feeling.
A few bits were more unexpected. Otts doubts that “To Kill a Mockingbird” “converted many segregationists like me in 1965.” This runs counter to a torrent of dubious Mockingbird conversion narratives.
In writing his book, Otts looked at the local paper from the ’60s with predictable but instructive results. “The Watchman” described the July marchers as “a bunch of noisy juveniles apparently more interested in silly antics than in anything else.” When two local black churches burned, the paper opined: they “might easily have been sacrificed by civil righters so as to spur contributions from other parts of the country.”
Otts also interviewed a lot of Greensboro natives, black and white, male and female. Most said what one might expect but Alice Hargress, a black demonstrator in 1965, produced the best piece of wisdom for Otts regarding prejudice: “You grew up on it. It gets to be your fault if you pass it from your generation to [the] next. It will pass if you let it pass.”
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”