‘Timeless memoir’ from a hate-filled man

Booknotes looks at the 'self-reinvention' of a Klansman.

Asa Earl Carter in the 1950s

Asa Earl Carter in the 1950s

Mike Selby

When it was first published in 1976, ‘The Education of Little Tree’ simply amazed anyone who read it, and it was obvious that a new American classic had been born.

The gentle story of an orphan boy being raised by his Cherokee grandparents during the Depression, ‘Little Tree’ has become a timeless memoir, much like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (which it is often compared to). It has sold millions of copies, was awarded the American Bookseller Association’s Book of the Year award, and was chosen by Oprah for her book club in 1994. It was also turned into the critically acclaimed film of the same name in 1997.

All of this is deeply strange. ‘The Education of Little Tree’ was written by Forrest Carter — a man so full of hate and bile it is hard to believe he had any time to type.

His real name was Asa Earl Carter, although he typically went by Ace. He studied journalism in Colorado, but moved his wife and four kids to Alabama in 1953, after accepting a job as a disc jockey for a radio station in Birmingham.

The first thing Carter did was vow to “keep Negro music off of the airwaves.” He was also fervently anti-Semitic, and was thought to be behind the dynamiting a number synagogues in Florida and Tennessee. When he heard that the town of Clinton, Tennessee, was desegregating their schools, Carter led a group of 200 men to terrorize the peaceful small town.

Back in Alabama, Carter launched a campaign of hate and violence when he became leader of Birmingham’s Ku Klux Klan chapter. He ordered the successful beating of Nat King Cole during one of his concerts, and was behind the castration of Edward Aaron — a World War II veteran who happened to be walking home from work in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time (his only crime was having dark skin). A heavy drinker, Carter frequently tried to assault numerous members of the Birmingham police.

Carter also made use of his writing skills, publishing his theories on white supremacy in a publication titled ‘The Southerner.’ His skills in rhetoric were noticed by Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, who hired Carter as his speech writer. Carter gave Wallace only his best, including Wallace’s infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” speech.

The progression of the Civil Rights Movement left little room left for the Carters of the world, and he relocated to Texas in 1970. It was here he changed his name to Forrest, after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate war hero and the original founder of the Ku Klux Klan. “Forest” Carter began to type his first novel, which was published in 1973 under the title ‘Gone to Texas.’ This was filmed in 1976 by Clint Eastwood as ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales.’

And it was in that very year that ‘The Education of Little Tree’ was published, subtitled ‘a true story by Forrest Carter.’  Carter had somehow reinvented himself, claiming to be an orphan raised by Cherokee grandparents.

The book’s success landed him on TV, being interviewed by Barbara Walters on the Today Show.  He grew a huge moustache and wore a cowboy hat tucked low, obviously worried he would be recognized. The interview went smoothly; Walter’s producers obviously didn’t look into Carter’s past. He was however recognized by an Alabama journalist, who made his claims to the New York Times. No one seemed to care.

Carter choked to death on his own vomit in 1979, after having a drunken fistfight with his son (old habits die hard).  It wasn’t until almost two decades after his death that the truth about Carter was made known. ‘The Transformation of a Klansman’ written by Dan Carter (a history professor and Carter’s own cousin) appeared in the New York Times. This time, everyone took notice.

So where does this leave ‘The Education of Little Tree?’ Is it possible to like the book, but not the book’s author?  Oprah didn’t think so, removing it from her highly influential book list. Neither did author Sherman Alexie (an actual Native American), who eloquently stated “Little Tree is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden White supremacist.”  Yet the guilt just isn’t there. “Ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a White supremacist.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library