By Diane McWhorter
October 28, 1991 12:00 PM

FORREST CARTER WAS A STORYTELLING cowboy who became a posthumous cull phenomenon as the author of The Education of Little Tree, a warm-fuzzy memoir of his boyhood as an orphan raised in “The Way” of the Cherokee by his Native American grandparents in Tennessee. Asa Carter, raised on his parents’ Alabama farm, was a leader of the South’s scabrous racist fringe in the ’50s and ghostwriter of Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s most memorable segregationist screeds.

That Forrest and Asa Carter were the same man—he died of a heart attack in 1979—has long been known to Alabama political insiders; in fact Montgomery journalist Wayne Green-haw blew the author’s cover in The New York Times back in 1976, when Forrest Carter’s first novel was made into a blood-and-guts Clint Eastwood vehicle, The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Yet Little Tree, published that same year, was reissued by the University of New Mexico Press in 1986 as, the book’s jacket proclaims, “a true story.” And its backwoods spiritualism has won devotees in such diverse quarters as the Washington State court system, where it is used to help rehabilitate juvenile offenders, and the Broadway cast of The Will Rogers Follies, which received gift copies of the book from director Tommy Tune.

This fall, boosted by the American Booksellers Association’s ABBY Award, given to the book its members most enjoy selling, Little Tree hit the top of the Times paperback best-seller list. Outrage that a racist had become a latter-day guru provoked Emory University historian Dan T. Carter to expose him again in the Times this month. “If I were a Native American,” he says, “I would be appalled that someone assumed my cultural voice, wrote out of my experience—and pain—and then peddled it deceitfully.”

Although the book has fooled at least two Indian historians, Geneva Jackson, a member of the Cherokee Eastern Band in North Carolina, says it distorts the tribe’s legend and language. She calls Little Tree “the closest thing to a farce that has been published in the Cherokee name.” As for the description of Forrest in promotional copy as “storyteller-in-council to the Cherokee Nation,” no such position exists. Moreover, no official of the tribe can find any evidence of the donations Forrest claimed to have been making to the Cherokees from his book royalties.

Asa Earl Carter had already shed several identities by the time he emerged as Forrest in the mid-’70s. Known as Bud to his kin, Asa left Alabama at 17 to serve in the Navy during World War II. He then attended the University of Colorado and worked as a radio announcer in Denver under the name Earl Carter. Rumors at the time linked him to both Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith, an infamous right-wing evangelist, and the Communist Party. In 1954, at 29, Asa moved to Birmingham. Ala., and—as “Ace” Carter—began peddling anti-communist conspiracy theories on a new radio show. But city fathers soon drummed him off the air after one diatribe took an anti-Semitic turn. Carter then was installed by some local businessmen as a leader of the White Citizens Council, conceived as a middle-class alternative to the rough-and-redneck Klan. Carter proved too extreme even for the Citizens Council; in 1956 the group repudiated him as a “loathsome führer.” Soon after, in April, a rump group of Carter’s Council supporters assaulted Nat King Cole onstage during a Birmingham appearance.

In 1956 Carter founded his own branch of the Klan and was indicted for attempted murder after a shootout at Klan headquarters over the misuse of funds. Because of fickle witnesses, his case never came to trial.

Asa Carter’s literary efforts were confined to a racist broadsheet, The Southerner, which he coedited with Jesse Mabry. In September 1957, Mabry and five Klan brothers abducted a black man named Judge Aaron and in their cinder-block clubhouse—decorated with posters of Asa Carter’s campaign for city commissioner—pinned him to the floor and used a razor blade to slice off his scrotum, which was preserved as a “souvenir” in a paper cup.

The attackers were convicted of “mayhem,” and an Alabama state detective told Birmingham Klan leaders, “Y’all better find you a damn rock to crawl under because I’m gonna gitchya.” Carter retired to a farm in Calhoun County and apparently stayed out of politics until 1962, when George Wallace came through on a campaign swing and Carter showed him a few sample speeches. His first claim to literary fame was as the anonymous author of wallace’s historic 1963 inaugural address: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

By 1970, Asa Carter had broken with Wallace, charging that he had sold out to blacks and communists. During 1971, Carter was reportedly arrested three times for driving while intoxicated or public drunkenness. Asa disappeared from public life; Forrest’s first book appeared two years later. “If Forrest Carter was in fact a member of the Klan,” says Rennard Strickland, a Cherokee professor of Indian law at the University of Oklahoma who wrote the introduction to the latest edition of Little Tree, “it gives us hope that a cure of the soul is possible even late in life.” But talking to a reporter in 1984, Asa’s brother Doug, then a Birmingham businessman, said simply that Asa’s writing was a scheme to raise money for a political comeback in the ’80s.

In 1976 reporter Greenhaw favorably reviewed Forrest Carter’s first novel about outlaw Josey Wales. A short time later, leaving a local bar in Montgomery, he was hailed by an old Wallace pol who said, “Asa sure took y’all for a ride.” Rereading the book, about an ex-Confederate vigilante, Greenhaw came to a conclusion. “I realized, ‘Hell, it is Asa!’ ” he says. Though Forrest wouldn’t confirm the connection, Greenhaw compiled enough circumstantial evidence to expose it.

Eleanor Friede, Forrest Carter’s original editor, who later became his agent, dismissed the suggestion of an Asa-Forrest link in 1976 and continued to deny it until this month—when Forrest’s widow, India Walker Carter, faxed her a letter saying, “It just did not occur to me that you didn’t know.” The letter added, “The philosophy in Little Tree was so much a part of Forrest’s being…he did not write Little Tree to make a fool of anyone…he didn’t have to change, to write this book.”

Friede immediately flew down from New York City to debrief India at her home on St. George Island, off the Florida panhandle. There she learned that Little Tree was a pastiche of family legends that Carter used to tell his four children. “Grandpa,” India admitted, lived near the Carter family in Alabama, not Tennessee, and claimed only one Cherokee grandparent; “Grandma” had no Indian blood and died before Asa Was born.

As for reconciling Asa, the boozy hatemonger, with Forrest, the gentle storyteller, historian Dan T. Carter says, “We are left with the possibility that he remained until the end the ultimate con man.” Friede demurs. “To me,” she says, “it was an honest life.”