We had to cross more than a bridge to change Alabama. We had to span years.
For S. McEachin “Mac” Otts, those years became journal entries, then those entries became a book. That work, “Better Than Them: The Unmaking of an Alabama Racist” is the Mobilian’s collection of therapeutic musings that head back to his family’s origins in Greensboro, Alabama.
In particular, it begins with a jarring image of Mac on a Greensboro street corner, an iron pipe in his hand as the 18-year-old raged in reaction to a 1965 civil rights march. He was typical for the times, a boy who revered his grandmother’s whispered phrase that became the book’s title.
Fast forward a pair of decades and Otts calmed down. He credits religion for part of that change, a profession for the rest of it.
“In time we adopted a child who was mixed race. We saw the mixed reactions to that,” Otts said. As their son reached 11 or 12, the father’s observations stirred introspection.
“By then he was getting to be the person he was going to be. I could see the character, how much love we had for him and he for us. I started thinking here I am trying to understand people and help them help themselves and I don’t know why I was the person I was in 1965, with the views that I had and the anger I had,” Otts said.
So he began to fill legal pads with questions and thoughts. What traveled through his head went straight to paper and later to keyboard.
“I started this in my 40s and finished in my 60s,” Otts said. “It was about trying to understand myself.” The result was printed by New South Books and is available in e-book form.
While teaching a sociology class at Faulkner State Community College, Otts divulged his story to classes, then broke the members into smaller discussion groups. He saw headway and heard many credit the technique and his example of candor for making it possible.
“The first thing was being honest with myself,” Otts said. “I’m telling you it was real hard.”
What proved most difficult was seeing his family in bare terms. He had to make peace with legacy.
Less than a handful of generations ago, Otts’ paternal forebear was a plantation owner with “multitudes” of slaves. It reshaped their relationship to the community at large.
“My family was not an easy family,” Otts said. “I wanted people to see I was looking at it all and so I had to go back to my father’s own drinking, problems my mother had, it got pretty personal in the book.
The small town was a bubble that skewed Otts’ interaction with the world so he left for college up the road in Tuscaloosa. His days at the Capstone opened doors that led to his current role aiding others on similar journeys, dialogues he feels society needs.
“I’ve had people say ‘why can’t we just forget it, ya’ know? Let’s just not talk about it and move on. It’s no longer a part of our lives,” Otts said.
“What I say about that is that I’ve been a counselor for a long time and it’s those areas that you never talk about that come back on you. And if you don’t learn from history, you’re bound to repeat it.”
Otts also recognized individual acts. He was able to separate the system from the person.
“When I look back, there were people who may not have spoken out against things and if they had their effect would have been diminished because they would have been removed from whatever position of influence they had,” Otts said. “But they also were not a part of the culture that reinforced it and what they reinforced in others were the kinds of things that eventually were going to help people gain a different perspective.”
The counselor of course believes change in the individual is possible.
“Prejudice is a part of life anyway, we’re all prejudiced,” Otts said.
He gives an example of a woman with a trio of rambunctious kids holding up a grocery line with food stamp issues. He said any difference in our reaction based even slightly on the woman’s race isn’t unusual.
“It becomes racism if I take that assumption with me,” Otts said. “If I categorize it like I do other things that are false and say ‘I’m taking that over here and I’m not letting that change the way I treat people.’ We all have prejudices but they cross the line when we can’t catch them for what they are and put them in a proper perspective before they become racist.”
One place Otts has seen change is familiar and inspirational. It’s at the source point.
“I had one event at the Greensboro Library. We had about 50 people which was a good turnout for a town like that,” Otts said. “Of them, there were probably seven or eight black people. It was a significant turnout and significant that there was that mix.”
Lots of space and time between Mobile and Greensboro, even more between 1965 and 2015. The tire iron Otts held was made for prying apart. The story he brought a half-century later was made for closing those gaps.
“The Greensboro people were quite conversant about it,” Otts said. “This was something I really wanted to see in publishing the book.”