Klansman? Best-selling author? Native American activist? Hero of the segregationist cause? All of the above?
A new documentary, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter,will attempt to answer these and other questions when it makes its world premiere today at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham.
The film, directed by Marco Ricci, examines the complicated and shadowy life of the man who penned George Wallace’s “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever” speech, and who later became the toast of the Dallas literary scene following the success of his quasi-autobiographical book, The Education of Little Tree.
Asa “Ace” Carter was born on a small dairy farm in Calhoun County in 1925. After his graduation from Oxford High School in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War.
Following his discharge, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled briefly at the University of Colorado, where he learned the craft of radio announcing.
In the early 1950s, he returned to Alabama and became the on-air spokesperson for the American States Rights Association (ASRA) at radio station WILD in Birmingham.
Twice a day, Carter’s rich baritone filled the airwaves of central Alabama. He weighed in on a variety of topics, from Reconstruction to communist infiltration at the State Department to the evils of miscegenation.
As long as Ace stayed on his two primary topics, race and communism, the ASRA leadership, which included several prominent Birmingham business and civic leaders, gave him free rein. But when his daily diatribes began targeting Jews, several sponsors boycotted the station and management pulled the plug on his program.
A crusade against rock and roll
In 1955, Carter founded the North Alabama Citizens’ Council. Formed in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Council movement sought to prevent integration through peaceful means, choosing legal action and economic pressure over the more violent tactics of the Klan.
Carter, though, had other ideas for his group. In the spring of 1956, he launched a statewide crusade against rock and roll music, calling it smutty and decadent, claiming that it subverted the white teenager’s will to resist black political and social gains.
Members of Carter’s group picketed concerts and threatened to boycott radio stations that continued to play Elvis Presley and Fats Domino records. In April, several of Carter’s associates, including Anniston resident Kenneth Adams, assaulted singer Nat “King” Cole onstage at the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium. The attack and political fallout helped bring about the speedy demise of the Council movement in Alabama.
After the Cole incident, Carter created the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. At a January 1957 meeting of the group, two members publicly challenged Carter’s “one-man rule.” Ace reportedly opened fire with a revolver, critically wounding both men.
In September 1957, six members of the group snatched an African-American man named Edward Aaron from the streets of south Birmingham and brought him to a Klan-owned building in Chalkville. There, the men pinned Aaron to a table and emasculated him with a razor. Afterward, they poured turpentine into the wound, threw their victim into the trunk of a car, and drove him back to south Birmingham. Aaron somehow survived the ordeal, and four of his tormentors were later convicted of mayhem.
Speechwriter for George Wallace
After these events, Carter returned home to his small farm outside of Anniston, periodically emerging to run for public office. He appealed to such a small constituency, however, that his campaigns barely registered on the political radar.
In 1962, he was recruited to write speeches for gubernatorial candidate George Wallace. Carter penned the infamous “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever” address for the governor’s inaugural in January 1963. For the remainder of the decade, Ace continued to work for Wallace as speechwriter and propagandist.
By 1968, Carter and Wallace had begun to drift apart. Carter wanted the governor to keep hammering away at the race issue, but Wallace had his eye on the White House and knew he would have to tone down his rhetoric to appeal to a national constituency. Carter didn’t buy it.
The governor had sold out.
In 1970, Carter ran unsuccessfully against Wallace in the gubernatorial spring primary. When Wallace took Gov. Albert Brewer to a run-off election, Carter reconciled with his old boss and helped to engineer one of the most racist political campaigns in Alabama history.
After leaving the Wallace camp for good in 1971, Carter created yet another white supremacist group, The Southerners. According to FBI informants, the organization conducted guerrilla training exercises in the Talladega National Forest, hoarded weapons and explosives, flirted with the idea of creating an all-white utopian community near Mobile, and readied itself for the coming race war.
Carter, seeming to grow more paranoid by the day, surrounded himself with bodyguards, telling his associates that the FBI had begun tapping his phone. At a typical meeting of The Southerners, Carter would rant about Jewish conspiracies, Black Panthers, white turncoats and the tyrannical federal government. According to one account, during a gathering in 1973, Carter revealed that God had spoken to him and vowed to help The Southerners win their struggle against modern liberalism.
In May 1974, Carter walked into the Anniston office of the FBI and told the agent in charge that he was leaving town. He furnished two telephone numbers where he could be reached, then walked out, never to be seen or heard from again.
Gone to Texas
A few months later, a man calling himself Forrest Carter turned up in Abilene, Texas, telling anyone who inquired that he was a half-breed Cherokee Indian who had been orphaned at the age of 10.
It was Ace, of course, but he had undergone a drastic physical transformation: He had shed 30 pounds, grown out his hair and even sprouted a mustache. He barely resembled the thick-boned, clean-cut racist who had been the voice and face of the North Alabama Citizens Council back in the 1950s.
Even his demeanor had changed. Carter no longer went around spouting racist propaganda (at least in public). Instead, he liked to talk about how Native Americans had been wronged by the government. After a shot or two of whiskey, he would even break into an Indian “war-dance” or start singing old country and western songs.
To all comers, he was friendly, full of mirth, always willing to expound upon the wisdom of his alleged Cherokee forebears.
Occasionally, someone would make the connection between Forrest and Ace, but Carter would always shrug his shoulders and mumble something about a ne’er-do-well cousin from Alabama. He wanted to make a clean break with the past. By his estimate, it was the only way he could succeed in his new undertaking.
The bestselling ‘Little Tree’
Back in 1972, Carter had begun work on a novel, The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales, about a Missouri farmer who joined the Confederate Army to avenge the deaths of his wife and children, killed at the hands of Federal troops. He had the book privately printed and began handing out copies at meetings of The Southerners. By the summer of 1974, he had signed a publishing contract with Dell Books, and had begun forging a new identity for himself in central Texas.
Between 1974 and 1978, Carter published a total of four books: Gone to Texas (originally called the The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales), The Vengeance Trial of Josey Wales, The Education of Little Tree and Watch for Me on the Mountain.
Unaware of Carter’s background, readers and critics alike hailed his works as gutsy, soulful portrayals of life on the western frontier. The Education of Little Tree, a story of a young orphan learning the ways of the world from his Cherokee grandfather, was hailed as a contemporary classic, eventually topping the New York Times bestseller list. It became required reading at several universities, praised by scholars and Native Americans alike for its simple elegance and deep philosophical underpinnings.
In 1976, Gone to Texas was adapted into a major motion picture, The Outlaw Josey Wales,starring and directed by Clint Eastwood.
Carter even landed an interview with Barbara Walters on The Today Show in the summer of 1976. The future seemed rife with possibilities.
Regardless of how hard Forrest tried to outrun his past, he could not seem to shake his darker half. In June 1979, following a brawl with one of his sons, a drunken Carter choked to death on food and blood. He was 53 years old.
After a simple funeral in Abilene, Texas, Carter’s remains were brought back to Alabama and buried in the community of DeArmanville, just outside of Anniston.
Freelance writer Frederick Burger contributed to this article.
Gary S. Sprayberry, a native of Anniston, is an associate professor of history at Columbus State University in Georgia.
See the documentary
There will be a special screening of The Reconstruction of Asa Carter at 7 p.m. Monday at the AmStar Stadium12 Cinemas in Oxford.
A question-and-answer session with the filmmakers will follow. Admission is free. The documentary will make its television debut on PBS in early 2012.