Jan. 16, 1998
by Jerry Kopel
Fifty years ago this month I walked into Mackey Auditorium at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder for freshman orientation. There were several empty seats in a row next to another young man, so I joined him. Waiting for the program to begin we exchanged names, discovered both of us were veterans (he was 22, I was 19) both a long way from home, and both enrolled as pre-journalism students.
After orientation, we left Mackey, crossed over to Old Main, and introduced ourselves to Gayle Waldrop, the Journalism School dean. We had already enrolled in the same English composition and literature courses, and were together for part of each school day. His name was Asa Carter. He was from the South, and he was a bigot and a racist.
Carter and I were more than acquaintances and less than friends. If you kept him off the subject of race, as I did when we had coffee together almost daily after class, he was a good conversationalist and knowledgeable. Both of us were political junkies. Carter later became involved early in the Ed Johnson vs. Gene Cervi Democratic primary. I believe he did what would be the equivalent in 1948 of "dirty tricks" against Cervi.
What I couldn't understand about Carter was how someone who talked so admirably and lovingly about his grandfather, an American Indian, could so lack empathy for another minority treated badly in this country. By that summer, Carter disappeared from CU. I never saw him again, but in the 1950s and 1960s, he was very prominent in the newspapers.
Carter became a speech writer for Alabama Governor George Wallace. Emory University History Professor Dan Carter (a distant relative of Asa) who has recently written a biography of Wallace, "The Politics of Rage" claims Carter authored the 1963 speech by Wallace: "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
In a November, 1991 New York Times Book Review discussion, Prof. Carter calls Asa Carter "a Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home grown American fascist and anti-semite, and rabble rousing demagogue." If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, he was all of that as a leader of the North Alabama White Citizens Council and as head of a separate Klan organization. Asa Carter called George Wallace "too liberal", ran against him for governor, and lost.
He surfaced again in 1973 in Abilene, Texas, having written a novel "The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales" under the pseudonym "Forrest Carter". It was later republished as "Gone to Texas" and Clint Eastwood made it into a movie, "The Outlaw Josey Wales." He also wrote "Watch For Me On the Mountain" an historical novel about Geronimo.
In 1976, again as Forrest Carter, he wrote "The Education of Little Tree". The book didn't sell well at first, but when re-issued in the 1990's, it became No. 1 on the New York Times' nonfiction paperback best seller list. In 1991, the book received the American Booksellers Association's ABBY award as "Book of the Year." Asa Carter had died in 1979.
According to the Associated Press "The book purports to be Carter's memoir of his days as the orphan Little Tree, who (at the age of five) went to live with his Cherokee grandmother and grandfather in Tennessee in the 1930s and learned to love the mountains and Indian ways."
"Little Tree" is a thin book and one of the most enjoyable I've ever had the pleasure to read, suitable for both adults and children. "Little Tree" has sold nearly a million copies. No one doubts its place in American literature as it became "assigned supplementary reading for courses on Native American literature," but critics still debate how much was fiction or fact.
Once "Little Tree" achieved a national reputation, literary critics began to coalesce into anti-Carter and pro-Carter camps. The anti-Carterites claim "Little Tree" is a hoax written by a white man who was not an orphan, who did not live with his grandparents, and who was not a speech-writer for George Wallace.
Having known Asa Carter in 1948, seen his eyes light up when he talked about his grandfather, heard him speak of his childhood but never of his parents, and heard him reflect how proud he was to be of Indian blood, I can attest that his memoir was more fact than fiction. Otherwise he was into a deception 28 years before "Little Tree" was completed, and never once slipped up in our lengthy, daily discussions. That is possible, but I think unlikely.
Did Asa Carter become a different person in the 1970s than he was in the 1950s and 1960s? I don't know. I'd like to believe in redemption. What would Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthdate we celebrate this month and whose life and activities must surely have intersected at some point with that of Asa Carter, have said about the Asa Carter of the 1970s?
While Carter was on the University of Colorado campus, he lived with his wife and baby in a Quonset Hut in an area known as Veterans' Village. I never met his family (remember we were less than friends) but there is a passage in "Little Tree" which could have easily served as a goodbye from his family to Asa Carter as spoken by his "Granpa":
"...when you got old and remembered them you loved, you only remembered the good, never the bad, which proved the bad didn't count nohow."
Asa Carter did terrible things and caused hurt and harm to many people, but with "Little Tree" he did leave something good behind for his time on earth.
Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.
Copyright 2012 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel