View of Nat King Cole and two police guards on stage during concert in Birmingham Municipal Auditorium, Alabama. Fragment of clipping on back: “The discord was from the audience. In the midst of a performance by Nat King Cole, popular Negro singer and pianist, in the Birmingham (Ala.) Municipal Auditorium, four men swarmed over footlights and attacked him. ‘I didn’t see anything,’ Cole said. ‘It happened so fast.’ Cole continued performance under police guard but later canceled further appearances in the South. Four were jailed, chargedwith inciting a riot.”
I recently learned about Asa Carter for his role in attacking Nat King Cole during a performance in 1956. This heinous act turns out to be only a minor chapter in the life of a quintessentially outspoken and violent segregationist leader who changed his identity/occupation and went on to write a bestselling book loved by millions. Forty years after his death his life is still a mystery, and frauds that he perpetuated continue to live to this day through Hollywood as well as his books. As the 1991 op ed (see below) says, “What does it tell us that we’re so easily deceived?”
Here is an overview of his life.
1950’s-Asa Carter, local dj and segregationist in Birmingham, Alabama, joins pro segregation group Alabama Citizens’ Council before starting his own groups, North Alabama Citizens’ Council and paramilitary Original KKK of the Confederacy. Various speeches can be seen on Youtube.
1956. Members of North Alabama’s Citizen Council attack singer popular singer Nat King Cole during a concert for a white audience. Four are arrested and convicted and serve short sentences. Carter, probably the mastermind, is not implicated. Up to this time, Cole was not part of the movement and was roundly criticized for it. He became part of the movement after this, helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
1957. Six members of Carter’s group are arrested and convicted for the torture, castration and attempted murder of a black janitor. They are sentenced to 20 years each.
1958. Carter allegedly shoots two members of his group and leaves them for dead in a dispute over money; charges are dropped because of id problems (perpetrator was wearing a Klan hood!) His proper place was jail, instead he runs for lieutenant governor of Alabama that year.
1960s. After losing he becomes speechwriter for George C. Wallace, who is elected governor in 1963. Remember those fiery hate mongering speeches? Many of those lines were Carter’s. He is credited with Wallace’s signature line “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Though associated with Wallace for a number of years, a direct relationship has not been proven; Carter’s sinister reputation was too much for even Wallace and he was paid through middlemen.
1963. Wallace’s people commutes sentences of the 6 members of Carter’s group convicted in 1957
1966. Works in governor’s mansion for Gov Lurleen Wallace (George could not serve consecutive terms) as speechwriter, has office in governor’s mansion.
1968. Wallace runs for president, tones down rhetoric, Carter is out.
1970. Runs against George Wallace for governor, describing him as “too liberal.” Carter comes in last.
1970s. Segregation industry on the wane, Asta changes his name to Forrest Carter, moves to Texas, then Florida. Loses 40 pounds, grows mustache, starts cowboy persona and begins writing novels with Western themes, claims to be cowboy writer with Indian background (which may have been true).
- Writes Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales.
1975. Writes Education of Little Tree, a supposed autobiography about his supposed Indian upbringing. with themes of environment and government intervention. Carter is interviewed by Barbara Walters on Today Show. Walters does not probe into his past.
1976. Clint Eastwood adapts Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales for movie Outlaw Josie Wales starring himself. Movie is about a renegade band of Confederates operating after the Civil War. Eastwood denies knowing about Carter’s past. Film receives high critical praise. NY Times runs story by Wayne Greenhall about Asa and Forrest are the same person. Meets literary agent Eleanor Friede, who actually believes in Carter’s authenticity and who becomes his link to the legitimate publishing world until his death. He mocks Friede and her Jewish background behind her back.
1979. Carter dies in a drunken fit during a fight with his son. He was on his way to Hollywood to discuss a film adaptation of his fourth book. Few, including his literary agent, are aware of his true identity at the time of his death.
1986. Education of Little Tree is reprinted. Return of Josey Wales released as movie.
1991. “Little Tree” mania breaks out. Little Tree fan clubs are formed in schools. Movie studios compete for rights. Book reaches top of New York Times bestseller list, selling a million copies. New York Times published op ed unmasking him for a second time. New York Times moves book from nonfiction list to fiction list. His publisher continues to deny any link between Asa and Forrest until Carter’s widow acknowledges truth.
1992. Texas Monthly writes in depth article exposing Carter in further detail (online).
1994. Oprah Winfrey puts Education of Little Tree on her recommended list, calling it “very spiritual.”
1996. Outlaw Josey Wales selected by Library of Congress for preservation in National Film Registry, deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
1997. Education of Little Tree released as a movie. Roger Ebert gives it 3 out of 4 stars.
2007. Oprah Winfrey pulls Education of Little Tree from her recommended list after 13 years.
2012. NPR airs documentary The Reconstruction of Asa Carter .
2019. Education of Little Tree and Outlaw Josey Wales are still available on Amazon. Under the “about the author” section all that appears is “Forest Carter (1925-79) was born and raised in Oxford, Alabama.” No mention is made of the history of the author’s racist and violent past or this particular story as being one of the most elaborate literary hoaxes of its time.
FAIR DISCLOSURE: I have not read any of Carter’s books or seen any of the subsequent movies, not do I intend to.