As a child in the 1970s, Fix read The Education of Little Tree, a book about a young man’s Cherokee upbringing that became an instant New Age classic. He also knew that the author of Little Tree was also creator of Josey Wales, the 1970s cinema outlaw who was regarded, in some circles, as an anti-war hero.
Only as an adult did Fix find out the truth.
“A friend said to me, ‘Do you know Little Tree? And did you know the author was a speechwriter for George Wallace?’” said Fix, a film producer who grew up in New York. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Fix is the co-producer of The Reconstruction of Asa Carter, a documentary on the Anniston native and longtime Calhoun County resident who became one of Alabama’s most notorious racists — and one of the state’s most famous authors. The documentary will be shown at the AmStar Cinemas in Oxford Monday at 7 p.m. Admission is free.
The film includes interviews with a number of people with local connections, including Anniston-born historian Gary Sprayberry, local writer Frederick Burger and Anniston Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers.
Asa Earl Carter first came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as the man who wrote much of the script for Alabama’s defiance of civil rights laws. A speechwriter for Gov. George Wallace, he’s believed by some to be the author of Wallace’s famous “segregation now, segregation forever” line. He also led his own Klan group, known as the KKK of the Confederacy.
Years later, Carter re-emerged with a completely new public persona. Under the pen name Forrest Carter, he wrote the The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales, a short novel about a Confederate raider who flees to the Comanche territory after the Civil War, pursued by an implacable, brutal Yankee general. The book became a popular movie which some — including star Clint Eastwood — described as an anti-war film, in part because it ends in a speech about how people “can live together without butchering one another.”
A few years later, Carter produced an “autobiography,” detailing Forrest Carter’s supposed upbringing by gentle Cherokee grandparents. The Education of Little Tree became an underground New Age hit, until a historian unmasked the author as a notorious Klansman.
Fix, the film producer, still has fond memories of reading Little Tree as a child.
“I think it was on one of those reading lists, you know, where you read 10 books and you get a sticker of a dinosaur,” he said. “I think it appealed to my love of nature.”
Fix said he was stunned — and intrigued — when he heard that Asa Carter was the book’s author. So he joined a group of friends who were already at work on a documentary that attempts to unravel the enigma that was Asa Carter.
“The question is, how do you make that journey?” said Marco Ricci, director of the film. “And what does that journey say about us as a country?”
The film crew spent four years chasing down the origins of Asa Carter and his alter ego, Forrest Carter. It wasn’t easy. To Alabamians, the producers say, Asa Carter was well-known as a racist radio personality, Klan agitator and unpaid speechwriter for Wallace. While some Wallace supporters say Carter wasn’t the author of the “segregation forever” speech, Fix thinks there’s a strong connection.
“It sounds like Asa,” he said. “He was active in the Klan, and these lines echo a Klan motto — ‘The Klan today, the Klan tomorrow, the Klan forever.’”
But to the people Carter met in Texas in the 1970s, he was Forrest Carter — an earnest Cherokee descendant trying hard to research his native roots.
“He spent a lot of time in the library in Abilene reading about native history,” Fix said. “The librarians loved him.”
Fix said that if Carter did indeed have Cherokee ancestors, those ancestors lived before the Civil War. The Cherokee grandparents — and even some of the Cherokee words — in Little Tree are completely made up, he said.
The documentary includes footage of some of Forrest Carter’s former fans and colleagues — footage that captures their reaction as they watch a film of Asa Carter spouting racist statements in a stump speech during his 1970 run for governor. It caught some people off guard.
“I almost felt guilty about including some of this in the film,” Fix said. “I think most of them had heard about his racist past but didn’t believe it until they saw it.”
Fix said Forrest’s former friends struggled emotionally with the fact that Forrest was also Asa Carter. Some theorized that Carter must have changed his ways.
Master of performance
“There’s a great deal of debate out there about whether this was a true transformation,” Fix said.
Fix wouldn’t bet on it. And there’s some evidence to support the idea that Carter never changed his opinions. The filmmakers say that in the early 1970s — at the same time he was researching his first novel — Carter led a group called The Southerners, which attempted to set up an independent, commune-like settlement of white supremacists somewhere in southern Alabama. The group also put out a newsletter, The Southerner, that promoted the same rhetoric Carter espoused during his Klan career.
“If you know how much work it took to put out a newsletter back then — mimeographing, stapling and so on — you know that he put a lot of effort into it,” Ricci, the director, said. “So it’s not just the words. It’s something he put a lot of work into.”
Carter eventually used the resources of The Southerners to self-publish The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales — thus launching his new identity as Forrest.
Born in Anniston, Carter lived in Calhoun County for much of his life. The filmmakers say he knew Calhoun County Klansman Kenneth Adams, who is believed to be the mastermind of the 1961 Freedom Riders bus burning. But the filmmakers say Carter chose to stay out of racist politics at home.
“He was a professional racist,” Fix said. “But when he was in Calhoun County, he had, I guess, this third identity as a family guy.”
Shifting identity is a major theme in the film. Ricci said the filmmakers had “knock-down, drag-out” debates about how to tell the story of Carter, whose motives remain cloudy.
“We decided to ask, ‘What are the skills that make you successful in both 1950s Alabama and 1970s Hollywood?’” Ricci said.
And the filmmakers agree on at least one of those skills.
“He was a master of performance,” Ricci said.
For more information on the documentary, go to www.reconstructionofasacarter.com.
Assistant metro editor Tim Lockette can be reached at (256) 235-3560.