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Asa Carter

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Asa Carter

Asa Earl Carter
Born (1925-09-04)September 4, 1925
Anniston, Alabama, United States
Died June 7, 1979(1979-06-07) (aged 53)
Abilene, Texas, United States
Occupation Writer

Asa Earl Carter (September 4, 1925 – June 7, 1979) was a wild Ku Klux Klan leader, segregationist speech writer, and later famed western novelist. He was most notable for publishing novels and a best-selling, award-winning memoir under the name Forrest Carter, an identity as a Native American Cherokee. In 1976, following the publication success of his western The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, The New York Times revealed Forrest Carter to be Southerner Asa Earl Carter. His background became national news again in 1991 after his purported 1976 memoir, The Education of Little Tree, was re-issued in paperback and topped the Times paperback best-seller lists (both non-fiction and fiction). It also won the American Booksellers Book of the Year (ABBY) award.

Prior to his literary career as "Forrest", Carter was politically active for years in Alabama as an opponent of the civil rights movement: he worked as a speechwriter for segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama; founded the North Alabama Citizens Council (NACC), an independent offshoot of the White Citizens' Council movement, and an independent Ku Klux Klan group, and started a pro-segregation monthly entitled The Southerner.

Early life

Asa Carter was born in Oxford, Alabama in 1925, the second eldest of four children.[1] Despite later claims (as author "Forrest" Carter) that he was orphaned, he was raised by his parents Ralph and Hermione Carter in nearby Oxford, Alabama. Both parents lived into Carter's adulthood.

Carter served in the United States Navy during World War II, and for a year studied journalism at the University of Colorado on the GI bill.[2]:114 After the war, he married India Thelma Walker.[1] The couple settled in Birmingham, Alabama and had four children.


Carter worked for several area radio stations before ending up at station WILD in Birmingham, where he worked from 1953 to 1955. Carter's broadcasts from WILD, sponsored by the American State's Rights Association, were syndicated to more than 20 radio stations before the show was cancelled. Carter was fired following community outrage about his broadcasts and a boycott of WILD.[2]:114 Carter broke with the leadership of the Alabama Citizen's Council movement over the incident. He refused to tone down his anti-Semitic rhetoric, while the Citizen's Council preferred to focus more narrowly on preserving racial segregation of Blacks.[2]:116

Carter started a renegade group called the North Alabama Citizen's Council. In addition to his careers in broadcasting and politics, Carter during these years ran a filling station.[2]:116 By March 1956, Carter was making national news as a spokesman for segregation. Carter was quoted in a UP newswire story, saying the NAACP had "infiltrated" Southern white teenagers with "immoral" rock and roll records. Carter called for jukebox owners to purge all records by black performers from jukeboxes.[3]

Carter made the national news again on September 1[4] and 2[5] of the same year, after he gave an inflammatory anti-integration speech in Clinton, Tennessee. He addressed Clinton's high school enrolling twelve black students. After Carter's speech, an aroused mob of 200 white men stopped black drivers passing through, "ripping out hood ornaments and smashing windows". They were heading for the house of the mayor before being turned back by the local Sheriff. Carter appeared in Clinton alongside segregationist John Kasper, who was charged later that same month with sedition and inciting a riot for his activities that day.[4][5] Later that year, Carter ran for Police Commissioner against former office holder Bull Connor, who won the election. Connor later became nationally famous for his heavy-handed approach to law enforcement during the civil rights struggles in Birmingham.[2]:116

In 1957, Carter and his brother James were jailed for fighting against Birmingham police officers. The police were trying to apprehend another of the six in their group, who was wanted for a suspected Ku Klux Klan (KKK) shooting.[6] Also during the mid-1950s, Carter founded a paramilitary KKK splinter group called the "Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy".[7] Carter started a monthly publication entitled The Southerner, devoted to purportedly scientific theories of white racial superiority, as well as to anti-communist rhetoric.[2]:115

Members of Carter's new KKK group attacked singer Nat King Cole at an April 1956 Birmingham concert.[2]:115 After a more violent event, four members of Carter's Klan group were convicted of a September 1957 abduction and attack on a black handyman named Judge Edward Aaron. They castrated Aaron, poured turpentine on his wounds, and left him abandoned in the trunk of a car near Springdale, Alabama. Police found Aaron, near death from blood loss. (Carter was not with the men who carried out this attack).[2]:115

In 1958, Carter quit the Klan group he had founded after shooting two members in a dispute over finances. Birmingham police filed attempted murder charges against Carter, but the charges were subsequently dropped.[2]:114 Carter also ran a campaign for Lieutenant Governor the same year that saw him finish fifth in a field of five.[7] In 1963, a parole board, appointed by Carter's then-employer Alabama governor George Wallace, commuted the sentences of the four men convicted of attacking Aaron.[2]:115

During the 1960s, Carter was a speechwriter for Wallace. He was one of two men credited with Wallace's famous slogan, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever", part of his 1963 inaugural speech. Carter continued to work for Wallace. After Wallace's wife Lurleen was elected Governor of Alabama in 1966, Carter worked for her.[8] Wallace never acknowledged the role Carter played in his political career, however:

"Till the day he died, George Wallace denied that he ever knew Asa Carter. He may have been telling the truth. 'Ace', as he was called by the staff, was paid off indirectly by Wallace cronies, and the only record that he ever wrote for Wallace was the word of former Wallace campaign officials such as finance manager Seymore Trammell."[7]

When Wallace decided to enter national politics with a 1968 presidential run, he did not invite Carter on board for the campaign. He sought to tone down his reputation as a segregationist firebrand. During the late 1960s, Carter grew disillusioned by what he saw as Wallace's liberal turn on race.

Carter ran against Wallace for governor of Alabama in 1970 on a white supremacist platform. He finished last in a field of five candidates, winning only 1.51% of the vote in an election narrowly won by Wallace over the more moderate Governor Albert Brewer. At Wallace's 1971 inauguration, Carter and some of his supporters demonstrated against him, carrying signs reading "Wallace is a bigot" and "Free our white children". The demonstration was the last notable public appearance by "Asa Carter".[8]

Literary career and death

After losing the election, Carter relocated to Sweetwater, Texas,[9] where he started over. He began work on his first novel, spending days researching in Sweetwater's public library. He distanced himself from his past, began to call his sons "nephews", and renamed himself Forrest Carter, in honor of Confederate Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest.[9]

He and his wife later moved to St. George's Island, Florida. There Carter completed a sequel to his first novel, as well as two books on American Indian themes.[9] Carter separated from his wife, who remained in Florida. In the late 1970s, he relocated to Abilene, Texas.[7]

Carter's best-known fictional works are The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (republished in 1975 under the title Gone to Texas) and The Education of Little Tree (1976), originally published as a memoir. The latter sold modestly – as fiction – during Carter's life. It became a sleeper hit in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

Clint Eastwood directed and starred in a 1976 film adaptation of Josey Wales, retitled The Outlaw Josey Wales after the book was sent to his offices by Carter as an unsolicited submission and Eastwood's partner read and put his support behind it. At this time, neither man knew of Carter's past as a Klansman and rabid segregationist. In 1997, after the success of the paperback edition of The Education of Little Tree, a film adaptation was produced. Originally intended as a made-for-TV movie, it was given a theatrical release.

In 1978, Carter published Watch for Me on the Mountain, a fictionalized biography of Geronimo. (It was reprinted in 1980 in an edition titled, Cry Geronimo!)

Carter was working on The Wanderings of Little Tree, a sequel to The Education of Little Tree, as well as a screenplay version of the book, when he died in Abilene on June 7, 1979. The cause of death was reported as heart failure, but alleged to have resulted from a fistfight with his son.[10][7] Carter's body was returned to Alabama for burial near Anniston. No family members attended his funeral.[2]:117

Controversy and criticism

Carter spent the last part of his life trying to conceal his background as a Klansman and segregationist, claiming categorically in a 1976 The New York Times article that he, Forrest, was not Asa Carter.[11] The article describes him as Forrest Carter being interviewed by Barbara Walters on the Today show in 1974. He was promoting The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, which had begun to attract readers beyond the confines of the Western genre. Carter, who had run for governor of Alabama (as Asa Carter) just four years earlier, was identified by several Alabama politicians, reporters and law enforcement officials from this Today show appearance. The Times also reported that the address Carter used in the copyright application for The Rebel Outlaw was identical to the one that he used in 1970 while running for governor. "Beyond denying that he is Asa Carter", the Times noted, "the author has declined to be interviewed on the subject."

In 1985 Carter's autobiography was purchased for a paperback edition and marketed by the University of New Mexico Press as a memoir. It was subtitled "A True Story by Forrest Carter". The story described the relationship between the boy and his Scottish-Cherokee grandfather, a man named Wales (an overlap with Carter's other fiction). Written from the perspective of a boy orphaned at age five, the book described how he had become accustomed to life in a remote mountain hollow with his "Indian thinking" 'Granpa' and Cherokee 'Granma', who called him 'Little Tree'.

Granpa runs a small whiskey operation during Prohibition and the later years of the Great Depression. The grandparents and visitors to the hollow expose Little Tree to (supposed) Cherokee ways and "mountain people" values. The state removes him to an orphanage, where he stays for a few months until an old Indian friend intimidates the director into allowing Little Tree's release. (In life, Carter was neither orphaned, nor raised by Cherokee grandparents.)

Before taking a new name and identity, Carter had claimed to have distant maternal Cherokee ancestry, a claim corroborated by some of his family members.[7] Delacorte Press's original author biography referred to Carter as the Cherokee "Storyteller in Council." Members of the Cherokee nation have disputed his claim. They said so-called "Cherokee" words and customs in "The Education of Little Tree" are inaccurate, and the novel's characters are stereotyped. Several scholars and critics agreed with this assessment, adding that Carter's treatment of Native Americans repeated the romantic but racist concept of the "Noble Savage".

In 1985, the University of New Mexico Press bought rights to The Education of Little Tree from original publisher Delacorte Press and published it in paperback. By its second year, the new paperback edition began to sell briskly through word-of-mouth publicity. Sales eventually surpassing 600,000.[12] Though Carter's background as Asa Carter was discussed in academic circles, it was not widely known by the book-buying public nearly ten years after the 1976 New York Times article about him. In 1991, after the book won the American Booksellers Book of the Year (ABBY) award, it ranked number one on The New York Times non-fiction paperback best-seller list for several weeks.

On October 4, 1991, Dan T. Carter (a history professor and distant cousin of Asa Carter) published the article "The Transformation of a Klansman" in the New York Times. This article shed light on Asa Carter's dual identity. The Times shifted the book onto its fiction list.[10] Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. also wrote an article on Carter and Little Tree for The Times that appeared in November 1991.[13]

In 1997, a film adaptation of Little Tree was released, which revived publicity about Asa Carter. Carter's widow, India Carter, refused most interview requests during these years.[12] In 1991 she did confirm to Publishers Weekly that Forrest and Asa were the same person.[14] Eleanor Friede, Little Tree's original editor, defended Carter's background in 1997, telling the Times, "[H]e was not a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I honestly don't see the point of all this nasty gossip dragged out years ago."[12]

Following the 1991 publicity, the University of New Mexico Press changed the cover of Little Tree, removing the "True Story" subtitle and adding a fiction classification label. The biographical material in the introduction has never been changed to include details of Carter's involvement with segregationist politics and the KKK. Little Tree has continued to find readers and a place on reading lists for young adults since 1991. For fans who know of the controversy, many take the position of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who argued that Little Tree can be appreciated for its message of tolerance and its other qualities, despite the biography of its creator.

Richard Friedenberg wrote and directed the 1997 film adaptation. He also has defended the book, but not the author:

Mr. Friedenberg said what appealed to him about the book was that "the characters and milieu they were in represented everything that was good about America and everything that was bad." On the one hand, he said, the book dealt with the strength of the family and not necessarily with traditional families. On the other hand, he said, it dealt with ignorance and prejudice. Mr. Friedenberg said he found it perplexing and almost impossible to understand Mr. Carter's motives and literary ambitions. Although Mr. Carter, who wrote four books, failed to address the issue of his bigotry publicly, Mr. Friedenberg said he believed that "his apology was in his literature." For example, he said, the handful of blacks and Jews in his books are depicted sympathetically. "The bad guys are almost, without fail, rich whites, politicians and phony preachers," Mr. Friedenberg said.[12]

Oprah Winfrey, who in 1994 endorsed Little Tree, subsequently removed it from her list of recommended book titles:

"I no longer—even though I had been moved by the story—felt the same about this book," Winfrey said in 1994. "There's a part of me that said, 'Well, OK, if a person has two sides of them and can write this wonderful story and also write the segregation forever speech, maybe that's OK.' But I couldn't—I couldn't live with that." The book has also been criticized on literary grounds: "I am surprised, of course, that Winfrey would recommend it," says Lorene Roy, president of the American Library Association. "Besides the questions about the author's identity, the book is known for a simplistic plot that used a lot of stereotypical imagery."[15]

A documentary, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter, released in 2011 examines Carter's past as a notorious KKK leader and the person who wrote George Wallace's "Segregation Now! Segregation Forever!" speech and his reinvention as a best-selling Native American author.[16] [17]


Books by Forrest Carter

  • The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (Whippoorwill Pub., 1973; reprinted by Delacorte in 1975 as Gone to Texas; and by Dell in 1980 as The Outlaw Josey Wales).
  • The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales (Delacorte Press, 1976)
  • The Education of Little Tree (Delacorte Press, 1976)
  • Watch for Me on the Mountain (Delacorte Press, 1978, republished by Dell in 1980 as Cry Geronimo!)

Books about Carter's faking of ethnicity

  • Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities (Laura Browder, 2003)
  • Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Shari M. Huhndorf, 2004)
  • Native American Fiction: A User's Guide (David Treuer, 2006)

Articles about Carter's faking of ethnicity

  • Carter, Dan T. The New York Times, October 4, 1991.
  • ———. "Southern History, American Fiction: The Secret Life of Southwestern Novelist Forrest Carter", in Rewriting the South: History and Fiction, ed. Lothar Honnighausen and Valeria Gennaro Lerda (Tübingen: Francke, 1993). 286-304.
  • Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1991.
  • Greenhaw, Wayne. (uncredited) "Is Forrest Carter Really Asa Carter? Only Josey Wales May Know for Sure", The New York Times, August 26, 1976.
  • "Learning from Little Tree: The Political Education of the Counterculture", Yale Journal of Criticism, Fall 2005
  • Reid, Calvin. "Widow of 'Little Tree' Author Admits He Changed Identity", Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1991.
  • Rubin, Dana. Texas Monthly, February 1992
  • Treuer, David., March 7, 2008.


External links

  • "Asa Carter", PBS's People and Events
  • David Treuer, "Going native: Why do writers pretend to be Indians?",

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