Did Carter, like Wallace, change?

Published 3:16 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The book has lived on my bookshelves, unread, for more than a decade, always something I meant to get to.

Earlier this year, when I read an article about Forrest Carter, the author of The Education of Little Tree, I resolved yet again to read his book. But it was actually reading another book, Wayne Greenhaw’s Fighting the Devil in Dixie, that made me finally pick it up.

First, the second.

Greenhaw, who died unexpectedly in a Birmingham hospital this week, chronicled the fight of civil rights activists against the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in his last book. His stories are both heart-wrenching and heartening.

Consider the story of Willie Edwards Jr., husband and father of three, who in 1957 was promoted to a driver for Hudson-Thompson, delivering supplies to Winn Dixie. At the end of his first day on his new job, he was accosted by three members of the Klan who took him to a railroad trestle and forced him to jump to his death.

That’s just one of Greenhaw’s heartbreak stories. The heartening ones are about those who fought the Klan, primarily within the legal system.

No book on civil rights in Alabama would be complete without a discussion of George Wallace, his politics, and his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa, where he made of show of blocking the registration of two African American students.

Years earlier, when Autherine Lucy had attempted to integrate the campus as a graduate student, she was locked inside Bibb Graves Hall for her own safety as protestors chanted outside. One of the men briefly arrested there that night – Asa Earl Carter – would go on to play a larger role in the political drama that unfolded.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Asa Carter, who formed the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, but you definitely know his work. Carter was the speechwriter who penned Wallace’s famous 1963 inaugural, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” speech.

Wallace began to moderate his stance on integration in the early 1970s, so much so that Carter ran against him, finishing fourth in a four-man race. Greenhaw recounts an interview with a tearful Carter who was seated on the back steps of state capitol, lamenting his former boss’s change, saying all was lost.

Years later, Wallace repented, and Greenhaw documents a number of face-to-face apologies the governor made to civil rights leaders.

Carter must have changed, too. For it was the white supremacist Asa Earl Carter who wrote The Education of Little Tree under the pen name of Forrest Carter.

Little Tree is far from the racist rhetoric for which Carter is most known in Alabama, but is the tenderly-told story of a Cherokee boy reared in the mountains by his grandparents in the 1930s. The author addresses sympathetically the racism the Native Americans faced. When it was published in 1976, Carter, claiming to be the “storyteller of the Cherokee nation,” was interviewed by Barbara Walters on the Today Show.

Whether the now-deceased Carter was a reformed man, or a master of fiction may never be known. Both books are worth the read.