The Real Education of Little Tree

How the author of a current best-seller conned the world into believing he was a gentle Texas novelist instead of a vicious Alabama Klansman.

February 1992By Comments

Everyone knew Forrest Carter had been drinking. It was October 1978, and the novelist from Abilene was a guest speaker at the Wellesley College Club book-and-author luncheon in Dallas. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, the author of the Rebel Outlaws: Josey Wales and other Western adventures delivered a slurred speech about the need for people to love one another. The message was straight out of Carter’s 1976 book, the Education of Little Tree, an account of his upbringing in the backwoods of Tennessee, where his Indian grandparents taught him self-reliance, distrust of “guvmint,” communion with nature, and love of one’s fellow man.

In the grand ballroom of the Sheraton, the audience shifted uneasily at this gushing of bonhomie. Most of the listeners were well-groomed North Dallas men and women—the distinguished supporters of what passed for the city’s literary scene. In an expansive moment, Carter pointed across the podium at his fellow speaker, historian Barbara Tuchman.

“Now, she’s a good ol’ Jew girl,” Carter said. Then he swung his arm toward Stanley Marcus, who was in the audience. “Now, Stanley,” he went on, “there’s a good ol’ Jew boy.”

A few uneasy titters arose from the audience as Carter’s boozy attempts to demonstarte his bigheartedness. The listeners were left to wonder how someone who had written so poignantly about humanitarian values could suddenly start talking like an anit-Semite. The answer was not fully known until last summer, when The Education of Little Tree improbably reached the New York Times best-seller list, fifteen years after its publication and twelve years after Forrest Carter’s death.

As it turned out, he was not a cowboy author after all. He wasn’t even Forrest Carter. His real name was Asa Earl Carter, and he was not from Texas but Alabama. He had sounded like an anti-Semite because he had been one all his life. He had also been a racist, an open advocate of white supremacy. As Asa Carter, he had been a writer, not of novels but of incendiary speeches for George Wallace, the David Duke of twenty years ago. The most famous lines Carter ever wrote were for Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

What’s more, all of this was known to many people during the years that Asa Carter masqueraded as Forrest Carter. The story had appeared in the New York Times in 1976, two years before Carter’s speech to the Wellesley College Club. Yet it was forgotten — or ignored — for years. Not until The Education of Little Tree became a best-seller did the truth resurface that Carter and the book were phonies. By that time, Carter had joined Clifford Irving and the forgers of the Hitler diaries as perpetrators of the century’s most brazen literary hoaxes.

THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE SOLD moderately well during Forrest Carter’s lifetime. But when it was reissued in 1986, its gentle message of environmentalism and multiculturalism was perfectly attuned to the times. Carter’s story about life with Granma and Granpa is filled with rhapsodic passages about nature:

I trotted behind Granpa and i could feel the upward slant of the trail.

I could feel something more, as Granma said i would. Mon-o-lah, the earth mother, came to me through my moccasins, i could feel her push and swell here, and sway and give there … And the roots that veined her body and the life of the water-blood, deep inside her. She was warm and springy and bounced me on her breast, as Granma said she would.

Last summer, Little Tree mania broke out across the country. Hollywood studios competed for movie rights. School-children formed Little Tree fan clubs. But then an Atlanta historian wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that unmasked Asa Carter a second time. For weeks, Carter’s agent, Eleanor Friede, vehemently denied any link between the two men. “An anti-semite, anti-Negro? That was never Forrest,” she said. Not until Carter’s reclusive widow acknowledged the truth in October did the Times shift The Education of Little Tree from its nonfiction list to fiction.

With the book revealed as a fabrication, the questions remained: Who was Forrest Carter? How could someone who had ranted about the “bestiality” of blacks, who had once vowed to die to preserve the Anglo-Saxon race, write so movingly about downtrodden Indians? Did he undergo a spiritual conversion? An emotional breakdown? The mystery was enhanced by the silence of Carter’s wife and four children, who refused to discuss the details of Carter’s double life. His New Age fans desperately wanted to believe he had changed, for if he had not, they had been duped. Worse, they would have to acknowledge that the book they had seen as a validation of their leftist beliefs actually sprang from the far right, from a value system they abhorred.

The only way to learn the answers was to reconstruct Carter’s life — to talk to his friends in Alabama who knew him as Asa and to the Texans who knew him as Forrest. In Alabama, he saw himself as a crusader, the last defender of the noble south. He clung to the idea of a white uprising against the civil rights movement, but by 1970 he had to concede that his cause was lost. A defeated man, Asa Carter did what so many other Southerners had done when faced with failure — carved “GTT” on the porch post and headed West, gone to Texas. But where others moved to find a new future, Asa Carter moved to find a past. To become Forrest Carter, all he had to do was dress up in cowboy clothes and alter his Southern self-reliant ideology to a Western frontier guise. So convincing was his performance that he seemed to believe it himself. Two days after the book club luncheon, Dallas Morning News columnist Bob St. John wrote, “I tell you the man was amazing, as much of an established character as anybody in his books.” Unknowingly, St. John had hit upon the truth: Forrest Carter had become his own best character.

GROWING UP NEAR CHOCOLOCO CREEK, in the piedmont of the Appalachians in northern Alabama, Asa Carter was fascinated by his geneology. His roots were deep in the Confederacy. His maternal great-grandfather was James Weatherly, a Confederate capatain and one of Morgan’s raiders. His great-uncle on his father’s side served with Mosby’s Partisans and was hanged by the Union general Philip Sheridan.

Carter was already ideologically uncompromising when he graduated from high school in 1943. He enlisted in the Navy, he told friends, so he wouldn’t have to fight the Germans, whom he regarded as racially akin to his true ancestors, the Scotch Irish. Moreover, Germany hadn’t attacked our country. Why should the United States be fighting a Jewish war? Carter returned from the service in 1945, having been a boxing champ in the Third Fleet in the South Pacific. That year he married his quiet high school girlfriend, Thelma India Walker. They moved to Colorado, where he studied journalism and worked at a radio station. In 1953, at 28, he moved back to Alabama with Thelma and their son and quickly became enmeshed in the racial upheaval that was spreading across the South.

Figuring out Carter’s political beliefs is not difficult; copies of his radio broadcasts are available, as are issues of the Southerner, a monthly newsletter he wrote and edited. Many of his associates from the fifties and sixties are eager to talk about their notorious colleague. Their stories are chilling. On the issue of race, Carter was ruthless. To him, white supremacy was the foundation for law, order, and civilization. Racial equality would lead to race mixing, or “mongrelization,” which was against the laws of nature and God. The NAACP was the “National Association for the Agitation of Colored People,” and the civil rights movement was a concotion of world Jewry — the impetus behind the liberal tide that was threatening American democracy. In Carter’s view, blacks were to be pitied, but Jews were to be feared. Blaming them had a kind of dark logic; how else could you explain why previously docile Negroes would suddenly revolt?

His conception of the South was caught up in a mythic notion of noble people and an aggrieved land. He saw himself as an Ivanhoe, the valiant knight who fights romantic battles against great odds for a pure motive. The struggle against integration was, to him, Reconstruction all over again. Blacks, he said, were undeserving compared with the patient and brave Indians, who had suffered terrible wrongs inflicted by the Yankees. “I heard him say many times that blacks don’t know what it is to be mistreated,” says Buddy Barnett, Asa’s friend from childhood, who lives in Oxford, Alabama. “The Indians have suffered more.”

Asa’s views found adherents, particularly among Birmingham’s wealthy establishment, but he was always on the political fringe. Time and again he was frustrated when he tried to run for public office: for the Birmingham city commission, for lieutenant governor, and later for governor of Alabama. In 1954, the year of the landmark school desegregation ruling, he attracted the attention of the American States Rights Association, a Birmingham businessmen’s group opposed to integration. Carter was hired to stir up support for its cause through broadcasts on radio station WILD. But Carter was fired after six months because he used his broadcast to blast National Brotherhood Week, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Later that year, Carter formed a white citizens council. Throughout the South, the citizens council movement was gaining support as a respectable segregationist alternative to the Ku Klux Klan. Membership began to boom after the Montgomery bus boycott got under way in December 1955; at one time, Carter’s group claimed thirty to forty chapters. But Carter soon ran into trouble with other Alabama citizen council leaders because, once again, his views were too extreme: He wouldn’t allow Jews in his group. “We believe that this is basically a battle between Christianity and atheistic communism,” he told a reporter. He saw conservative values threatened everywhere — even in the Blondie comic strip, where, he said, Dagwood’s foolishness undermined fatherhood. He picketed a rock concert with signs that said, “Jungle Music Promotes Integration” and “Bebop Promotes Communism.”

In the mid-fifties, Asa Carter always seemed to be on the periphery of violence. Although he denied that he was a member of the Klan, his signature appears on the articles of incorporation of a shadowy paramilitary gang called the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, whose members met secretly and wore Rebel-gray robes. Meetings were called to order with the thrust of a sword into the floor and a knife into the speaker’s stand. In 1957, two men were wounded and left for dead in a gunfight at a statewide meeting of Carter’s Klan. One of them later identified Asa as the robed and hooded man who had shot him, but the state never prosecuted the case. On Labor Day, 1957, six alleged members of his Klan abducted a black handyman, sliced off his scrotum, and tortured him by pouring turpentine on his wounds. Buddy Barnett says Asa was scornful of the way his cohorts had treated the black man. He says Carter told him, “It would have been better to have killed him than to do that.”

In his speeches, Asa openly advocated violence. Newspapers reported that at one rally he vowed to put his “blood on the ground” to halt integration; at another, he said of the federal government, “If it’s violence they want, it’s violence they will get.”

Even among his most resistant segreationist circles in the South, Carter’s tactics were beyond the pale. Eventually he was drummed out of the citizens council movement. In the spring of 1958, he made a pitiful stab at the Democratic primary for state lieutenant governor and finished fifth in a five-man field. Dispirited, he was quoted in a newspaper article as calling the Klan leadership “a bunch of trash.” And then just when Asa hit bottom, he hooked up with someone who offered fresh hope.

IN 1958, A YOUNG LAWYER NAMED GEORGE WALLACE ran for governor of Alabama against the state’s attorney general, John Patterson. Backed by the Klan, Patterson campaigned for a white Alabama and trounced Wallace, who was considered a moderate. After the election, Asa Carter was invited to join the Wallace team as a speech writer. Wallace was a skilled extemporaneous speaker: very forceful but only in spurts. Ace — as he was known to Wallace’s men — had a talent for inflated images and grandiloquent language. “Wallace wanted him to use hate,” says Seymore Trammell, Wallace’s former finance director. “He wanted it real strong.”

But Carter’s sinister reputation presented a problem. Nervous about their candidate’s being linked with Carter, Wallace’s men arranged for him to be paid sub rosa through various Wallace cronies — a Montgomery printer, a road contractor, and an insurance executive. At Wallace’s campaign headquarters, Carter was given a rear office, where he could work unnoticed. After Wallace’s victory in 1962, Carter took over a cubbyhole in the basement of the capitol. “We would go into the room, and by the time we got through talking for two hours, we’d get him riled up,” says Trammell. “We fed him raw meat. We would treat him almost like an animal — like you would give a race-horse a shot.” Carter would take a pack of Pall Malls, close the door, and emerge hours later with a riveting speech.

Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address — delivered on the steps of the Alabama state capitol, where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy — was a call to arms for the embattled people of Alabama: “In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say: Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” The audience leapt to their feet. Six months later, in Tuscaloosa, Wallace delivered his “Standing in the schoolhouse door” speech, also largely written by Ace Carter. These speeches helped propel Wallace to national prominence.

But Carter frightened even Wallace’s toughest men. A large man with a barrel chest, jet-black hair, and thick eyebrows, he exuded an air of danger. He kept an old Webley six-shooter with him at all times. In his personal life, he was circumspect. During the week, he lived at the Jefferson Davis Hotel in Montgomery, where Wallace’s men picked up the tab. On weekends, he would drive 120 miles up to Oxford to see his wife and four children. To his Montgomery friends, who talked politics with him at the Sahara restaurant, he had one weakness: After a few drinks, he turned belligerent. “I would not be around him when he was drinking,” says former Wallace associate Ray Andrews. “He more or less would start foaming at the mouth.”

Increasingly, Carter saw Wallace as the nation’s would-be savior. If he could make it to the presidency, he could prevent the country from falling prey to the evils of integration and communism. When Wallace was excluded from the governor’s race in 1966 because of a nonsuccession rule, he toyed with a run for the Senate. But Carter was among those who discouraged him; he thought Wallace would have to make too many compromising stands. Instead, he encouraged Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, to run for governor. After she won the election, Lurleen wanted to make Ace her press secretary, but her husband’s staff thought that was too controversial, so he continued to write speeches. When Lurleen died of ovarian cancer after only eighteen months in office, Carter was once again out of a job.

In 1968, when Wallace ran for president on a third-party ticket, Carter made several trips through the Midwest with Bobby Shelton, the Grand Wizard from Tuscaloosa, drumming up support for the campaign. But by then Wallace had tempered his racial rhetoric, and Carter’s skills as a speech writer were no longer helpful. He wanted Wallace to use language like “race mixing,” while Wallace insisted on “busing.” For Carter, Wallace’s political shift was a profound betrayal. So complete was his estrangement from Wallace that in 1970, Carter even ran against him as a Democratic candidate for the governor’s seat. His platform was predictable: anti-integration, anti-pornography, anti-Red movie writers in Hollywood. One Montgomery lobbyist recalls watching Carter campaign at the Talladegah County courthouse, protected by a phalanx of bodyguards. On the lawn before him was a large crowd, including a group of blacks trying to disrupt his speech by heckling. Carter kept gesturing to the blacks and saying, “This is a nigger mentality. This is typical slave mentality. This is all they know how to do.”

One of five candidates in the primary, Carter came in last, with only 15,000 votes. Then he made what must have been a humiliating pact: In exchange for the payment of his campaign debts, he agreed to write speeches for Wallace in the runoff against liberal Albert Brewer. But in his heart, Carter felt Wallace was a traitor. At Wallace’s inauguration in January 1971, Carter picketed with signs that said, “Wallace Is a Bigot” and “Free Our White Children.” Shortly after the ceremony, reporter Wayne Greenhaw recalls Carter’s complaining bitterly that Wallace had compromised his Southern ideals just when the fate of the nation hung in the balance. “If we keep on the way we’re going, with the mixing of the races, destroying God’s plan,” Carter told Greenhaw, “there won’t be an earth on which to live in five years.” When Carter finished, tears were streaming down his face. “You could see this horribly tortured human being,” Greenhaw says, “a totally defeated person.”

After that, Carter tried to found a string of all-white private schools, then feuded with Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley over taxes. In the Southerner, he raved because Baxley had appointed a “bushy headed black buck” as his assistant. Carter also blasted Wallace for letting blacks join the state highway patrol. “Soon,” Carter wrote, “you can expect your wife or daughter to be pulled over to the side of the road by one of these Ubangi or Watusi tribesmen wearing the badge of Anglo-Saxon law enforcement and toting a gun … but as uncivilized as the day his kind were found eating their kin in the jungle.”

In early 1971, Carter set up a statewide paramilitary organization whose members wore gray armbands with Confederate flags. Like his earlier political ventures, this one ended in failure. After one speech, a reporter wrote, Carter “seemed to have lost his spirit as he marched back and forth in a cadence before his assembly with a memorized speech. he drew but one applause.” The following year, Carter was arrested three times on alcohol-related charges. Then he seemed to drop from sight.

“EVERYBODY WANTS TO WRITE BOOKS,” Carter once told Bob St. John, explaining how he had come to be an author. “I also had developed this great interest in history and got the yearn to make some of the characters of which I’d heard real.” One lobbyist remembers visiting Carter’s home in the early seventies, around the time that he dropped out of politics. In the middle of the day, Carter was in pajamas and a smoking jacket, writing in longhand on lined yellow paper. He was working on an adventure novel about a die-hard Confederate soldier. The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales is based on the life of Jesse James. After Josey Wales’s wife and children are butchered by Union sympathizers, he continues to fight for his cause, time and again outfoxing the enemy with cunning tactics.

But the book is also about Asa Carter — or about the author as he saw himself persecuted by the federal government. By the time it was privately printed in 1973, Carter has selected a new name — Forrest Carter — borrowed from Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate hero and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Changing his name was no big deal; he had gone by Bud as a boy and Earl in Colorado. This time the reason for his deception was simple: His discredited career as Asa Carter would prevent him from becoming a writer; adopting a pseudonym was a way to start afresh.

In 1973, Asa and Thelma Carter auctioned their home in Alabama and moved to Florida. Their two eldest sons settled in Abilene, where their father set them up with a filling station. That year, Carter’s book was accepted for publication by Eleanor Friede and Delacorte Press.

Carter visited Abilene often, sometimes staying for months in the house he had bought his sons – whom he now called his nephews. He cultivated a new circle of friends, for whom he had to concoct an entirely new past. He told them he was part Cherokee, a former cowboy, bronc rider, dishwasher, and ranch hand, a man with no formal education but with a knack for writing. He said he spent his time drifting around the country from his home in Florida, where his wife lived, to the Indian nation, where his kinfolk lived. Everything about the way he presented himself was a fraud, from his ungrammatical speech to his cowpoke ways. He wore jeans, a bolo tie with a turquoise stone, and a black cowboy hat. His Abilene friends loved him for his fabulous stories and his highspiritedness. Sometimes he woud sing ballads. And sometimes, especially if he had been drinking, he would preform Indian war dances and chant in what he said was the Cherokee language.

Speaking to a literature class in Hardin-Simmons University, Carter talked about how he had rambled around the country looking for work. He said he had gone to the back door of a ranch house north of Dallas “when I was almost starved to death” and asked for work. The owner had offered him a meal, “but I wouldn’t take it without working first,” Carter said. He eventually became close friends with the rancher, Don Josey. Today, Josey is the president of Rancho Oil in Dallas. He and Carter were friends all right, but the rest of the story was a lie. Josey says he met Carter at a rally for Lurleen Wallace. The heir to an oil fortune, Josey is also a Confederate history buff. He and Carter had a lot in common, Josey says, including a shared sense of mirth over Carter’s ability to pull of a hoax.

Of all the people Forrest Carter deceived, it was perhaps his agent, Eleanor Friede, whom he betrayed the most. Carter had no respect for the agents, the editors, the lawyers, and, above all, the Jews who ran the New York publishing world. Friede, who had become famous for discovering Jonathon Livingston Seagull , was a Manhattan liberal married to a Jewish publisher – just the kind of person Carson would be likely to hate. But he and Friede struck up a strange relationship. With her, Carter played his wide-eyed bumpkin role to the hilt. Friede, who now lives in rural Virginia, recalls that when she met Carter in 1976, she was astonished to find a large man with a commanding presence. From his letters and phone conversations, he had come across as an awestruck country boy. “He really seemed like a child,” she says.

Because Friede was Carter’s main contact with the publishing world, maintaining the masquerade with her was essential. Ron Taylor, one of Carter’s close friends in Alabama, says he helped Carter to keep up the image of a drifting cowboy. Taylor would mail Friede telegrams signed by Carter from various places throughout the South. “He kept feeding her these side stories to confuse her,” Taylor says. Carter told Friede he could write only when he retreated to meditate, fast, and commune with nature. he called it ‘hidin’ out.” Friede saw it as part of his creative, tormented personality; she still defends Carter, maintaining that The Education of Little Tree is no hoax. There’s no doubt that Carter shamelessly manipulated Friede. To her face, he was tender. He called her ‘Miss Eleanor.” But in letters to friends, he put her down. the relationship he cultivated with her was part friendship, part con game.

FOR SEVERAL YEARS THE LIE worked flawlessly. Not until the summer of 1976 did Alabama newspaper Wayne Greenshaw figure ot that Forrest was really Ace. He wrote an article saying so for the New York Times, but his revelations had practically no effect. A few months later, Delacorte came out with The Education of Little tree which it promoted as a true story. That was also the year that Clint Eastwood turned Josey Wales into a hugely successful movie. Invited to appear on the Today show with Barbara Walters, Carter was petrified that she might learn about his background, so he took pains to disguise himself. He was forty pounds lighter than he had been in Alabama. He was tanned and had grown a moustache. And he wore a cowboy hat pulled down over his face. Walters did not probe into his past, but several of Carter’s Alabama acquaintances saw the program, recognized their friend, and laughed at how old Ace had pulled a fast one.

Carter’s views did not mellow in Texas. His easygoing humor was a facade he had adopted to preserve the mask. An Abilene friend, Louise Green, remembers hearing Carter rage about blacks more than once. At a steakhouse in Abilene, Carter flew into a nasty tirade. ‘He said he didn’t want anybody to take care of his poor old mother, and he didn’t want to take care of ‘some niggers old mother either’,” Green says. On and on he went, louder and louder, about how “the niggers ought to go back to Africa.” until other diners began to glare.

Only a few friends knew of his double life, and to them, he revealed a profound cynicism about the people he was deceiving. “He said,’Y’all screwed me all those years, and I’m gonna get you back,’” says his Birmingham attorney, R.B. Jones. “‘Y’all think you’re so damn smart. I’ll show you who’s so damn smart.’” To Don Josey, Carter wrote about his plans for a Little Tree sequel, which would cover his life from the age of nine to fourteen, when he had supposedly rambled the Oklahoma backwoods with the Cherokees and then crossed into Texas. Carter wrote that he intended to ‘work some good stuff in there about knocking on your back door for work and eats, etc. in the process of which we will try to learn them sick New Yorkers something.”

By 1979, the lies and the liquor had caught up with him. he had gained weight and look dissipated. His friends in abilene worried that he might never dry out enough to write another book. On June 8, 1979, Carter was passing through Abilene on his way to Hollywood to discuss the feature film version of Watch for Me on the Mountain his fourth and final book, which was about the life of Geronimo. It was at his son’s home in Potosi, south of Abilene, that Carter died mysteriously. Listed as the cause of death on the certificate was ‘aspiration of food and clotted blood’ due to “history of fist fight.” The ambulance driver told one of Carter’s friends that Carter had had a drunken fight with his son, fell, and most likely choked on his own vomit.

It is possible to read The Education of little Tree as a story about a child beset by evils of organized religion and intrusive government. The characters of Granpa and Granma personify pure goodness that Carter imputed to Native Americans. But there is little that is truly autobiographical about the book. According to Doug Carter, Asa’s younger brother, Granpa is based on great-grandfather James Weatherly, who died sometime around 1930, when Asa was about five — too young for Asa to have remembered him in detail. There is no counterpart to Granma in the Carter family. No one in the family ever called Asa Little Tree. According to Eleanor Friede, Carter’s wife maintains that the family is of Cherokee descent. But Doug Carter insists that there isn’t any Indian blood in the family.

Asa Carter admired the Indian people, especially the Cherokees. But the Cherokee language used in the book is mostly made up. There is no such thing as “Mon-o-lah, the earth mother.” His depiction of the Cherokee way of life is romanticized, like something out of Longfellow. “It’s very precious,” says Cherokee Geary Hobson, a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. “The Indians are sweet, sweet little creatures who can’t do any wrong.”

Only in an ideological sense is The Education of Little Tree true. It expounds an extreme kind of Jeffersonian political attitude that can be extended in any number of directions. To the left, it intersects with liberalism and multiculturalism; to the right, with libertarianism and anarchism. Out of context, the book might sound like a New Age manifesto. For many readers, it can exist on that level—surely all works of art take on a reality independent of their creators’ prejudices. But viewed in the context of Carter’s life and writings, The Education of little tree is the same right-wing story he had been telling all along. Perhaps there is another sense in which the story of Little Tree is true. Maybe, for Asa Carter, it represented a wishful kind of truth, the upbringing he wished he really had. “I think he felt so close to the background of the character he created,” says Doug Carter, “that I don’t believe he ever thought of it as deception.”

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