Several years ago, Birmingham writer Marti Slay was coordinating a storytelling workshop for members of Alabama Media Professionals, a local writers’ group. She invited her friend Dale Short to present a session on conducting a good interview and asked the Rev. Lawton Higgs, a Birmingham minister and activist on social justice issues, to be the interview subject.
“Lawton was our guinea pig,” Short recalls. “And we got more than we bargained for.”
In the course of answering Short’s questions, Higgs spoke of the racial attitudes he had grown up with from his birth in 1940, in Arkansas, to his arrival in Birmingham in 1984, to take over as pastor of McCoy Methodist Church. He said he’d been brought up to believe that black people should stay in their place and that the patriarchy of the white race was the natural order of things.
Higgs also told the story of the encounter that changed his life shortly after he came to Birmingham. Crossing the street from his church to invite a couple he had seen unloading their car, he realized the couple was black.
“I came face to face with my history,” Higgs says in A Recovering Racist, a new documentary produced by Short and Slay. “I was paralyzed there in the road. I knew that God was telling me to invite these people to church. It was in that moment that I became a recovering racist.”
Produced with funds raised from nearly 100 donors in a Kickstarter campaign, the film tracks Higgs’ transformation from a casual racist to the founder of a multiracial, multicultural church in downtown Birmingham. Among others, it features interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wayne Flynt, who has written extensively about race and faith in Alabama, and Carolyn McKinstry, who survived the September 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church and has become a noted author and speaker on civil rights and reconciliation.
“We both felt that this was something that needed to be done,” says Slay. “We felt that Lawton’s transformation, and his openness in talking about it, stands as an example for all of us. As Christians, we have to believe that people can change.”
Short laughingly calls the film “a homemade project,” though one with a message that he and Slay hope “causes people to look in their own hearts.”
“We hope it tells the story of Lawton’s life and work in a way that is meaningful,” Short says. “He’s a person that I think anybody can connect with who grew up in the South.”
The public premiere of A Recovering Racist is scheduled for Friday night, October 9, at Beloved Community Church, 131 41st Street South, in Avondale. The film begins at 6:30 p.m., and admission is free.