In the 1950s and 1960s, Asa Carter was a passionate white supremacist and vitriolic anti-Semite. He wrote some of Governor George Wallace’s most memorable lines, including “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” until he became too extreme even for Wallace.
Years later, Forrest Carter became a celebrated author for his “true story” sensitive portrayal of a Cherokee boy who is orphaned at age 5, “The Education of Little Tree.” It topped the New York Times bestseller list in 1991, 15 years after it was originally published. The book was lavished with praise for authentically portraying the Native American experience and being a sensitive multicultural and environmental work.
How, then, can it be that both Carters are really the same person? His greatest story, “one he never told,” is the subject of “The Reconstruction of Asa Carter,” which premiered on public television stations in April and will be aired on Alabama Public Television’s IQ channel on June 20 at 10 p.m., and June 21 at 3 a.m. It also was featured at Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham last fall, and screened at the University of South Alabama.
Douglas Newman, producer of the documentary, said the film is the result of a classroom challenge while he was attending Brandeis.
“I was assigned ('Little Tree') in college for a psychology class, and my father mentioned to me that he remembered it being a hoax, so I mentioned it to my professor, and he kind blew me off, saying it was never proven,” he said.
Newman mentioned that exchange to another professor who had lived in Montgomery and had interviewed Carter when he was in high school.
Newman did his research and wrote a project about it, then set aside the topic for several years. After graduation, he worked for ABC News Productions and did documentaries for several cable channels.
He decided to come back to the story of Carter because of how “complex” Carter was. The film’s executive producer is Laura Browder, who he met while at Brandeis, where she had been working on a book about false ethnic autobiographies.
In October 1991, the New York Times published a piece exposing how Asa and Forrest Carter — who also wrote “The Outlaw Josey Wales” — were the same person, and his new first name had come from Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Newman said knowledge of the connection between Asa and Forrest “goes through phases — people know, then people forget.” What he found in many instances was that people did not want to know who Carter really was.
In the film, he shows footage of Carter’s segregation days to friends who only knew him as Forrest in Texas. They were stunned to learn the truth about a person they thought they knew. “You got to see it in their head, making the connection,” Newman said.
While the film concentrated on his racism, Carter was “certainly anti-Semitic,” Newman said, but they did not have the time to go down that road in-depth in the film.
In the 1950s, he worked for WILD, a Birmingham radio station, with broadcasts sponsored by the States Rights Association. He was the favorite radio host of the White Citizens Council, but was eventually fired for being too anti-Semitic. Newman said Carter had blasted National Brotherhood Week, which promoted brotherhood with the Jewish community.
While the WCC was racist, Newman said, they were businessmen, and the businessmen felt they had to work with the Jewish community to be successful.
Carter “called them hypocrites and not true to the cause.” He would then start a rival group, which was the one responsible for the attack on Nat King Cole during a 1956 concert. He left that group two years later after shooting two members in a dispute over group finances.
While he had his radio show, Carter would go to pay phones following the show and make crank calls to local Jews.
According to his FBI file, Carter also had been in Jackson when the home of Rabbi Perry Nussbaum was bombed, and “left the next day, which was kind of convenient,” Newman said. Carter was never charged or even questioned, but Newman thinks he may have met some of those involved in the bombings of Nussbaum’s home and the synagogues in Jackson and Meridian.
As the 1960s progressed, Carter felt Wallace too had abandoned the cause, and ran against him for governor in 1970, coming in last in a five-man race. He then dropped out of view, reemerging as a new person, Forrest, a short time later in Texas, and denying he was Asa Carter.
At that point, Newman said, Carter probably didn’t know what he really believed, and it is an open question as to which Carter was really him — the sensitive autobiographer or the virulent racist. “Everyone has their own interpretations… we don’t pretend to have the answer.” Newman believes he was a genuine racist and anti-Semite, who later tried to reinvent himself by passing as non-white.
Carter died in 1979 and is buried near Anniston.
Newman said it is remarkable “that an anti-Semite can write a book with a kindly Jewish peddler as one of the characters, and really pull it off.
“A screenwriter could never write this story and have people believe it.”