Transcript

527:

180 Degrees
Transcript

Originally aired 06.13.2014

Correction: In the original broadcast of this episode, Joe Richman in Act One incorrectly stated that Nathan Bedford Forrest was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The audio and transcript have been changed to reflect that Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, not the founder. We apologize for the error.

Prologue.

Alex Blumberg

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. And I'm not Ira Glass. I'm Alex Blumberg, a producer here. I know I sound a lot like Ira. But trust me, he is away this week.

And I'm really excited to be guest hosting, because I have the opportunity to play one of my favorite pieces of tape we have ever aired on the show. I've been here 17 years. This is one of my all-time favorites. And I have the excuse to play it for you thanks to a 180 that the city of New York is doing.

So a couple weeks ago, the city of New York said that it was considering lifting its longtime band on ferrets as pets.

[PAPERS RUSTLING]

[CLEARS THROAT] I'm holding the Department of Health memo on the subject here. It was obtained by The New York Times recently. "Decision memo-- ferrets. Purpose-- allow ferrets to be kept as pets with restrictions." The memo goes on to discuss the history of the ferret ban, how it started under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, how it came about because of, quote, "reports in the literature" of ferret attacks on young babies.

And then it lists the reasons to lift the ban. Most other places, including New York state, do not ban ferrets. Ferrets aren't anymore disease-prone than dogs or cats. And, quote, "evidence shows ferrets do not bite more frequently or severely than pets of the same size." Ferrets, in other words, are being unfairly singled out.

And then down at the very bottom, there are these couple of lines where it discusses what the reaction might be if the ferret ban is lifted. It says, quote, "There was a well-known exchange between Mayor Giuliani and a ferret advocate." The city should, quote, "expect the past to be reprised." Past, reprise yourself.

Rudy Giuliani

We're going to go to David in Oceanside.

David Guthartz

Hello, Mr. Giuliani. We speak again.

Rudy Giuliani

Hi, David.

David Guthartz

Uh--

Alex Blumberg

The set-up here-- it's the summer of 1999. Mayor Giuliani back then had a call-in radio show that he would host. And the caller on the line is David Guthartz, executive president of an organization called New York Ferret's Rights Advocacy.

David Guthartz

Let me introduce myself again. David Guthartz, executive president of New York Ferret's Rights Advocacy. Last week, when we spoke--

Rudy Giuliani

Oh, no.

David Guthartz

--you said a very disparaging remark to me that I should get a life. That was very unprofessional of you. Here we're trying to get something--

Rudy Giuliani

I--

David Guthartz

--seriously done. Without you talking over me, we're trying to get something very seriously done.

Rudy Giuliani

David, you're on my show. I have the right to talk over you.

David Guthartz

But here's the thing--

Rudy Giuliani

And the fact is--

David Guthartz

--you talked over me the last time.

Rudy Giuliani

And the fact--

David Guthartz

And we are trying to get--

Rudy Giuliani

And the fact-- David!

David Guthartz

--an important issue taken care of, where the city is violating state law.

Rudy Giuliani

Get-- David.

David Guthartz

And I asked you last week if you care about the law.

Rudy Giuliani

Yes, I do care about the law.

David Guthartz

So why are you--

Rudy Giuliani

I think you have totally and absolutely misinterpreted the law, because there's something deranged about you.

David Guthartz

No, there isn't!

Alex Blumberg

They go back and forth like this for quite a while, until finally Mayor Giuliani hangs up on David, but then keeps on talking.

Rudy Giuliani

--serious. There is--

David Guthartz

Mr. Giuliani.

Rudy Giuliani

David.

David Guthartz

Rudy.

Rudy Giuliani

This conversation is over, David. Thank you. There is something really, really very sad about you. You need help. This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness. I'm sorry. That's my opinion.

You don't have to accept it. There are probably very few people who would be as honest with you about that. But you should go consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist and have him help you with this excessive concern, how you are devoting your life to weasels. You have a sickness.

And I know it's hard for you to accept that, because you hang on to this sickness. And it's your shield. It's your whatever. And I know you're real angry at me, and you're going to attack me. But actually, you're angry at yourself. So, David, see what you can do to get help.

Now we're going to move on to Richard in the Bronx.

Richard

Hello?

Rudy Giuliani

Yes, Richard.

Richard

Yes. Mr. Mayor, my name is Richard--

Brian Reed

Whoa.

David Guthartz

That's Little Girl.

Brian Reed

So what's-- who is this?

David Guthartz

This is Princess Stardust Serenade Ferret. That's her full name.

Brian Reed

Wow.

Alex Blumberg

This week, one of our producers, Brian Reed, caught up with David Guthartz, the ferret advocate in that exchange, at his home in Long Island. At times in his life, he's had up to five ferrets at once. There was Butch Cassidy, Thief of Hearts; Butch Cassidy, Thief of Hearts Junior; Linus van Pelt. But now, it's just the one-- Princess Stardust.

And Brian was here because we wanted to hear David savor his victory. 15 years after that radio interview where he's berated by the nation's most powerful mayor, vindication is at hand. Ferrets may soon be legal in New York City.

But David Guthartz says the way these new rules being proposed would only make things worse. Sure, they lift the ban, but only if you have a license. State law, which allows ferrets and which David feels should trump city law anyway, doesn't require a license.

David Guthartz

So if the city puts this in place, it's going contrary even more so to New York state law.

Brian Reed

But you're still allowed to own ferrets. Like, that still sounds better to me than if you want to have a ferret, then having to break the law to do it.

David Guthartz

No. Because if you going to do something, you do it right. Otherwise, don't do it.

Alex Blumberg

Brian and David went around and around on this. Brian saying, come on. This is worth at least a little bit of celebration, right? David's answer, always the same-- no.

Brian Reed

I got to say, the theme of our show this week is "180." Like doing a 180, a complete turnaround or complete reversal. And I came to visit you, because our impression was that the city was doing a 180 on ferret policy. But from talking to you, it seems like you don't think it's a 180.

David Guthartz

No, it's not a 180. It's more like a five-degree turn. [LAUGHS] It's a tiny, tiny step, when by right they should be taking a giant leap.

Alex Blumberg

180s are hard to get right. They can be controversial, even to the people whose side you're joining. There's all that history that came before, when you were going in the other direction, fighting on the opposite side. It's hard for people to trust you now. Today on our show, 180s and the controversy they invariably cause.

Act One of our show, Seeing the Forest through the Little Trees, the story of a beloved classic of high school English, an infamous speech on racial hatred, and the 180 that unites them both. Act Two, Unsafety Exit, wherein a teenager, after consulting the many adults in his life charged with keeping him safe, takes all their advice and decides that the one rational act to take is to put himself in danger. Act Three, "I'm the One who Knocks," a short story by Ben Loory about the 180 we're all hoping for. Stay with us.

Act One. Seeing the Forrest Through the Little Trees.

Alex Blumberg

Act One, Seeing the Forest for the Little Trees. I'm going to start this story here, in the halls of Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield, Massachusetts. The story will eventually take us many other places from Alabama to Texas to New York and Hollywood. But we're starting here, just outside Thomas Trevenen's sophomore English class.

The students are about to discuss a book that's read in a lot of high schools just like this one all across the country, a book that's at the center of our story-- The Education of Little Tree.

Mana

OK, so The Education of Little Tree is about this boy named Little Tree.

Alex Blumberg

This is a 16-year-old in the class named Mana.

Mana

So his parents die when he's five, like, both his mother and his father. And he goes to live with his Cherokeean grandparents.

Alex Blumberg

The Education of Little Tree was first published in the mid-1970s as an autobiography of the book's author Forrest Carter. It's been a staple of high school English and history classes for decades. Little Tree's grandparents teach him to respect the earth, to take only what he needs from nature, and to appreciate the fundamental human virtues of respect and tolerance.

Here's another student, Joseph, who's 16.

Joseph

He was learning to deal with racial discrimination and prejudice and try and expand his understanding of the world and nature. And I'm trying to do that, too.

Alex Blumberg

And this book? It's a hit.

Joseph

This is kind of embarrassing. But near the end, I really-- I sort of found myself getting a little emotional. But I really liked it. I found that I really connected to Little Tree. I felt like he was a lot like me. Sort of I'm on the same journey that he was.

We're both trying to become better people. I'm trying to learn to be a good person, become who I am, be a man. But so was Little Tree.

Alex Blumberg

There's one more thing we should say about The Education of Little Tree, something many people may already be aware of. It's a lie. It's not an autobiography. It's all made up.

And the fact that it's one of the larger literary hoaxes in history is discussed in some of the high schools where the book is taught, like this one. But in many others, it's not. And the true tale of how this book came to be contains some even more memorable characters learning somewhat darker lessons.

Once you know this true story behind the book, it's hard to believe that it could have the kind of impact, convey the kind of message that it does to the students who read it today. Here to tell this larger story around the book is radio producer Joe Richman, who runs Radio Diaries. One more thing to mention-- there's some potentially offensive language about midway through this story. OK, Joe Richman, take it away.

Joe Richman

The story behind The Education of Little Tree, this iconic book with a message of tolerance and respect, begins with the most famous racist political speech in American history.

George Wallace

Thank you, ladies and gentleman. This is the inaugurate day of my inauguration as governor of the state of Alabama. And this day--

Joe Richman

During the Civil Rights era, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, was the personification of Southern racism. He was the one who famously stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. But the moment that first really catapulted Wallace onto the national stage was his inauguration speech in 1963.

George Wallace

Let us send this message back to Washington that from this day we are standing up and the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright man.

Wayne Greenhaw

He was promising that he was going to stand alone for the Southern cause, the cause of the white people.

Joe Richman

Wayne Greenhaw was a young reporter in Alabama in the 1960s. He remembers listening to this speech and the famous words "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Wayne Greenhaw

It's vehement, it's mean-spirited, it's hateful. It's like a rattlesnake was hissing it almost. But it's beautifully written.

George Wallace

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

[CHEERING]

Joe Richman

This speech was a catalyst for much of the violence that followed. Just a few weeks later, Birmingham police used dogs and fire hoses on protesters. And later that same year, there was the bombing of a church in Birmingham, where four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning.

Today what most Americans know about George Wallace are those words-- "segregation now, segregation forever" --even though they weren't actually his words. Behind those words, behind that speech was an entirely different person-- Asa Carter, the poet laureate of Southern racist speech writing.

Wayne Greenhaw

"Segregation now, segregation forever" became Wallace's symbol. It all came from Asa Carter's pen. And nobody could write it any better than Asa.

Radio Host

It's time for another essay on liberty by Asa Carter.

Asa Carter

Thank you. The one great truth is race. Each race has a character, and each race--

Joe Richman

That's Asa Carter. He was a staunch segregationist. He started his own splinter branch of the KKK in Alabama. He wrote and published a white supremacist magazine. And every week, radio stations around Alabama would air Asa Carter's 15-minute liberty essays, which were about everything from his views on racial purity to the dangers of integration, communism, and rock and roll, all delivered with literary flair.

Asa Carter

That's why the left-winger so much wants to make our history a shrouded nothingness of confusion, to twist the songs of our fathers into bebop rhythms, and to degenerate our mores into a cacophony of chaos.

Radio Host

You've been listening to Asa Carter with an essay on liberty.

Joe Richman

In 1956, Asa had his KKK group attack singer Nat King Cole on stage, because Asa hated the idea that a black musician was performing for white women. Asa reserved special hatred for the Jews, who he felt were really to blame for the corrupting power of popular culture. He once said, "The Negro is the virus, but it's the Jew that inserts it in the veins of America."

And then in 1962, Asa got a new gig as George Wallace's speechwriter Ron Taylor was a good friend of Asa Carter's.

Ron Taylor

They'd call him and tell him what they wanted, you know. And they'd just give him a cup of coffee and two packs of Pall Malls, and he could write you a 20-minute speech in 30 minutes.

Joe Richman

Asa's speeches helped George Wallace become governor in 1962. But within a few years, the arrangement was falling apart. Tom Turnipseed was George Wallace's campaign director back then.

Tom Turnipseed

Times changed, and Wallace wanted to cool it a little bit. He didn't want to just come out and say, I'm a segregationist. He didn't want to use that terminology anymore. He wanted to be more moderate.

Asa's views were too extreme. And so Gov. Wallace didn't need Asa anymore. Asa would call me up and talk with me on the phone some. And he was resentful because he just felt like he was being ignored.

Here's the guy that wrote the famous, iconic speech. And now Wallace, he won't listen to me anymore. He won't talk with me. He won't take my advice. And so he felt used, I think, by Gov. Wallace.

George Wallace

--upon which I am about to enter to the best of my ability, to the best of my ability--

Joe Richman

George Wallace was elected governor again in 1970. But this time, his inauguration speech was very different from the speech that Asa Carter had written back in 1963. Wallace said, "Alabama belongs to all of us, black and white, young and old, rich and poor alike."

Reporter Wayne Greenhaw was on the steps of the capital at the time covering Wallace's inauguration address. And he happened to run into Asa Carter.

Wayne Greenhaw

After the speech, I found Asa out on the back steps of the capitol. And we sat on the stairs, talking. And he started crying. He said, "Wayne, George Wallace sold out. He's betraying us to the liberals of this nation." He stood up and turned around and said farewell.

Asa Carter

Well, I am just an old rebel, I reckon that is all I am. For this carpetbagger government, I do not give a dadblame. I'm glad I fit again'it. I'll keep fighting until we won. And I don't want to pardon for nothing that I've done.

This is Asa Carter. May God bless you. And I thank you for listening.

Wayne Greenhaw

And that's the last time I ever saw Asa Carter. He just vanished like he dropped off the face of the earth.

Chuck Weeth

My name is Chuck Weeth.

Betty Weeth

I'm Betty Weeth.

Chuck Weeth

And I and my wife ran a bookstore in our town of Abilene, Texas. In 1975, this man came walking in the store and said, "I'd like to introduce myself. I'm Forrest Carter."

Betty Weeth

He wore a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and had a mustache.

Chuck Weeth

He's dark complected, smile wrinkles around his eyes. He said he was Cherokee and he was raised by his grandparents back in Tennessee. No electricity, no running water. And I liked him. From the very start, I liked him.

Joe Richman

This new guy in town, Forrest Carter, quickly became a fixture in Abilene, Texas. Chuck and Betty Weeth say Forrest was outgoing and friendly. He told people in town he never had any formal education and spent his adult life wandering between ranch jobs. And he entertained everybody with stories about his Cherokee childhood.

Betty Weeth

We had him to our house several times for supper, just because you wanted to hear a little more about this life, which I wasn't familiar with at all.

Chuck Weeth

He was sort of the underdog of the American culture, and you were cheering for him. And you just grew to love him.

Joe Richman

Chuck and Betty Weeth knew Forrest was a writer and that he'd written a Western. Forrest told them he was sending copies of the book to people in Hollywood.

Chuck Weeth

He'd already approached--

Betty Weeth

Clint East--

Chuck Weeth

--Clint Eastwood. And lo and behold, Clint Eastwood was well enough taken by this first book, Forrest told us, he's planing to make a movie of it, which indeed he did do, called The Rebel Outlaw-- Josey Wales.

Movie Narrator

He lives by his word. And he lives for revenge. Clint Eastwood is the outlaw Josey Wales.

Josey Wales

Why, you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?

Joe Richman

During the time all this was happening, Forrest was hard at work on another book, a book he described differently than his first one. That was a novel. This was an autobiography. And he was calling it The Education of Little Tree. An orphan Cherokee boy raised by his grandparents who grows up to write a Hollywood movie starring Clint Eastwood-- it was made for TV.

Barbara Walters

Good morning. This is Today. I'm Barbara Walters with Jim Hartz.

Joe Richman

And in fact, in 1975, Forrest was invited to New York to be a guest on The Today Show with Barbara Walters.

Chuck Weeth

She introduced him as an Indian who had busted broncos all over the Southwest.

Joe Richman

While viewers around the country were being introduced to Forrest Carter, there were some people back in Alabama who recognized a man they hadn't seen in years. Ron Taylor remembers watching that morning as Forrest Carter told viewers he was the storyteller to the Cherokee Nation.

Ron Taylor

He had that black hat pulled way down. [LAUGHS] He just tanned himself up, grew a mustache, lost about 20 pound. But as hard as he tried, he couldn't fool the folks back home. I literally got down on the floor laughing and rolling around. Call the wife, "Asa's on TV! He's on with Barbara Walters." And I'm just rolling around on the floor laughing because Asa had pulled it, you know. He had fooled them.

Joe Richman

By the time The Today Show aired around the country, reporter Wayne Greenhaw had already been onto the story for a few months, the story that Asa Carter and Forrest Carter seemed to be the same person. The tip-off came when Wayne happened to write a review of Forrest Carter's first book, the one that became a movie. After the book review appeared in the paper, Wayne ran into an old friend of Asa Carter's, Ray Andrews.

Wayne Greenhaw

And Ray said, "Old Asa's got you fooled too, huh?" And I said, "What are you talking about?" And he said, "I saw you wrote a review of Asa's novel." I said, "That's Forrest Carter."

And Ray grinned and laughed and said, "Yeah, that's old Asa. Asa's Forrest Carter." Well, I thought, what in the world? And it just bumfuzzled me.

Joe Richman

After that original bumfuzzle, Wayne started to make calls.

Wayne Greenhaw

I got in contact with Eleanor Friede, who was a editor at Delacorte Press. And she had discovered Forrest Carter. And when I told her the story, she said, "Oh, no. It couldn't be the same guy. He's such a sweet, gentle, fine man. He would never say a word about anybody because of the color of their skin. And I know he's not anti-Semitic, because my husband and I are Jewish, and we've had him to dinner a number of times. And he's always just as nice as he could be. It just couldn't be the same man."

Joe Richman

In fact, the editor told Wayne she was about to publish Forrest Carter's autobiography, The Education of Little Tree. Wayne told her he would still love to talk to Forrest Carter himself, because he was writing a story for The New York Times about all this.

Wayne Greenhaw

Sure enough, in a few days, Forrest Carter called me. And he said, "You're this Greenhaw writing about me." And I said, "Yes, sir." And he said, "Now, you don't want to hurt old Forrest, do you, boy?" And I said, "Come off of it, Asa. I recognize that voice. I know you, you know me. We've drunk beer together."

I said, "I'm not trying to hurt you, but this business of Little Tree is not a true story." I said, "I want to tell the truth about what is going on here." He said, "Oh, boy, you know I don't do things like that." And he pretty much after that hung up.

Joe Richman

Wayne had no idea why Asa was doing what he was doing. Why had he changed his name and become a storyteller to the Cherokee Nation? Why had he gotten a tan, slimmed down, and grown a mustache? And how did he expect to get away with going on TV and talking to Barbara Walters in a fake Texas accent?

All Wayne knew was Forrest Carter was lying. He wasn't a Cherokee. This wasn't a memoir. And his name wasn't Forrest.

Wayne Greenhaw

And the story ran in The New York Times August the 26th of 1976 with the headline, "Is Forrest Carter really Asa Carter? Only Josey Wales may know for sure."

Joe Richman

Wayne though his New York Times article was going to set off a huge scandal. But a curious thing happened after the article came out, something that surprised Wayne Greenhaw. And it probably surprised Asa and Forrest Carter. What happened was nothing.

A few months later, Forrest Carter's autobiography, The Education of Little Tree, was published. And in fact, after Forest slash Asa died in 1979, the book just became more and more popular. In the late 1980s, The Education of Little Tree caught a wave of rising interest in all things Native American. And people seemed to identify with its themes-- humility, tolerance, living in harmony with nature.

A new paperback edition included a foreword by an actual Cherokee writer who called the book deeply poignant and compared it to Huck Finn. More than a million copies were sold. In 1991, the book reached number one on The New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List. In 1994, Oprah Winfrey recommended it on her TV show.

Every once in a while, a new article would come out revealing yet again the racist past of the book's author, and some small things would change. The New York Times moved the book from the nonfiction to fiction category. Oprah eventually took it off her book list. Some Native Americans said the book was full of stereotypes and was a complete fraud, but the Cherokee guy who wrote the foreword stood by it. It seemed that no matter what came out about the background of the book, its popularity continued. Today you can find it in Barnes & Noble in the Native American section.

Dan Carter

Most people who loved the book simply could not imagine that a former Klansman, racist, anti-Semite, this person couldn't have written The Education of Little Tree.

Joe Richman

This is historian Dan Carter, who, by the way, isn't related to Asa Carter. But he is writing a biography of the man. And he hits on the question that's at the center of the whole story. Is it possible that something happened in the heart of Asa Carter? Did he change? Was he a reformed racist trying to break from his shameful past? Or was he just trying to make a buck? Or was it all just a joke on his new-age liberal readers?

What does it mean that the man who wrote this--

George Wallace

And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

Joe Richman

--could also write this?

Man

One time grandma told me, when you come on something good, first thing to do is share it with whosoever you can find. That way the good spreads out where no telling how far it'll go.

Joe Richman

Here's Asa Carter.

Radio Host

In the South, we have 98% Anglo-Saxon races, not counting the niggers.

Joe Richman

The only group Asa Carter hated more than blacks were Jews. So what does it mean that Forrest Carter created the character of Mr. Wine, a generous and sympathetic Jewish peddler who befriends Little Tree?

Man

Mr. Wine said if you learn to place a value on being honest and thrifty, on doing your best, and on caring for folks, this was more important than anything.

Joe Richman

How could someone talk with so much venom--

Asa Carter

We shall submit to Negro dominion another day, another hour, another month. Behind every ballot is a bayonet and the red blood of an Anglo-Saxon who holds it.

Joe Richman

--and still write something so sweet?

Man

I could feel something more, as Grandma said I would. Mon-o-Lah, the Earth Mother, came to me through my moccasins. I would have liked to live that time forever, for I knew I had pleased Grandpa. I had learned the way.

Joe Richman

Actually, "the live in harmony with nature" message isn't really that surprising. You might expect a white supremacist to be nostalgic about living off the land. And someone can certainly write hate speech and still love nature. But what most leaders took from The Education of Little Tree is a message of tolerance and respect for Native Americans and for the African American and Jewish characters in the book. In fact, the villains in this story aren't the minorities. They're the white politicians.

For many people who love The Education of Little Tree, the only way to make sense of it was to take the book at its word and to believe that Asa Carter had truly changed. It wasn't an act, but a sincere transformation. Yes, OK, he wasn't a Cherokee orphan. But in this heart, he had become Forrest Carter. And Exhibit A for this point of view, for "the people can change and people do change" point of view, is Asa Carter's former boss George Wallace, the man he wrote speeches for.

Tv News Host

Primary elections are being held Tuesday. And George Wallace is trying a come back, trying to become governor again.

Reporter

At black meetings, Wallace repudiates his former racist stance.

George Wallace

And whether or not you agreed with me in everything that I used to do and agreed to, I know that you do not. I too see the mistakes that all of us made in years past.

Joe Richman

This is footage from George Wallace's last campaign for governor in 1982. He was actually in a wheelchair-- the result of an assassination attempt. And he was in the midst of what would be known as his apology tour, going around the state to black churches and civic groups, anyone who would have him and saying, I was wrong.

One of the civil rights leaders Wallace apologized to was Congressman John Lewis, who still has a visible scar on his head from famously being beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march to Selma, Alabama.

John Lewis

And I remember the occasion so well. It was like someone confessing to their priest or to a minister, just telling me everything and asking me about everybody, that he never had an opportunity to meet with Martin Luther King Junior, to meet Dr. King. He wanted people to forgive him. He said, "I never hated anybody. I never hated black people." He said, "Mr. Lewis, I'm sorry." And I said, "Well, Governor, I accept your apology."

I believe people have the capacity to change. I think he was sincere.

Joe Richman

George Wallace was a lifelong politician. And it's impossible to say if his change of heart was authentic or not. But the people he was apologizing to believed it. In his last election as governor of Alabama in 1982, he won with 90% of the black vote. Wallace continued his apology tours long after he left public office.

So George Wallace represents the transformation-is-possible theory. To people in Abilene, Texas, who are friends with Forrest Carter, the Cherokee writer, that's what happened to Asa Carter. He pulled a Wallace. Here's Chuck and Betty Weeth.

Betty Weeth

I personally think the Forrest Carter I knew was sincere. The other life he seemed to have had as Asa Carter, I just sort of dismiss it.

Chuck Weeth

I agree with that. I guess it's sort of that feeling that give a man a chance, he might change himself. And we felt like, well, he tried to change himself and he succeeded with us. I didn't like Asa Carter, I'll guarantee you. But I did like Forrest Carter.

Joe Richman

There's another person who has some thoughts on this, one of the few people who knew both Forrest and Asa Carter.

Carol Boyd

He was Uncle Asa to me. He wasn't Uncle Asa, the white supremacist. He wasn't Uncle Asa, the staunch segregationist. He was Uncle Asa. So for me, it was my uncle wrote this wonderful book.

Joe Richman

Carol Boyd is the daughter of Asa Carter's brother. She's never spoken about any of this on the record before. All of Asa's family members have kept silent for years. Like many of them, Carol was sheltered from most of the details of her uncle's racist past. The main thing she knew about her uncle-- he was the true author of The Education of Little Tree.

Joe Richman

So when did you first read The Education of Little Tree?

Carol Boyd

I guess I was a senior in high school when I first read it. I loved it. I fell in love with it. I actually cried. I just think it's a beautiful story. I still read it today.

Joe Richman

Carol describes herself as politically liberal. She voted for Obama twice. And to her, that book is all the proof she needs that in the end, her uncle wasn't so so different in his view from her.

Carol Boyd

Just to have the ability to write that book, whether you present it as an autobiography or not, just to have that in you I think says that there is a good part of this person. I would hope that people would choose to believe maybe he found a softer side in his older years. And maybe he did change.

Ron Taylor

Did he change? That's the question you asked. No. No, no, no, no, no. Not at all. Not at all did he change.

Joe Richman

This again is Ron Taylor, one of Asa Carter's friends from the early days back in Alabama. Ron would describe himself as the opposite of politically liberal. And he's chief proponent of theory number two--

Ron Taylor

No, no, no, no. No.

Joe Richman

--Asa Carter did not change.

Ron Taylor

You know, I could do like some and just say, oh, he didn't really mean that. He didn't this, that, and the other, but did. He did. And to refute it, like say Wallace did and people like that, then that makes it their whole lives lies before. I mean, old Wallace, after they wheeled him out in his wheelchair, and he apologized for everything he ever was.

But Asa Carter wasn't going to apologize. He felt like he was right. And he lived it and he died it. He just didn't change. He was Asa Carter.

Joe Richman

There are some interesting clues that support Ron's theory. Many of the supposed Cherokee words in the book Asa completely made up, just nonsense words. Mon-o-Lah, the Earth Mother, comes up a lot. Not a word. The name Forrest, it's not about communing with nature. It comes from Nathan Bedford Forrest. Never heard of him? He was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

And even the fact that the book is told from the point of view of a Cherokee kid, some white supremacists, it turns out, had a thing for Native Americans. KKK members sometimes bragged about being part Native American. It's the noble savage trope that goes back to DW Griffith films and much earlier. It may seem counter-intuitive, but to Asa Carter, it was perfectly reasonable to glorify Native Americans while hating blacks and Jews.

And there's one more thing-- Asa's inscription in the copy of the book that he gave to Ron.

Ron Taylor

And this is my copy of it. It has gotten rather tattered. Here's signature page. It says "For Ronny, my friend whose loyalty to the Southern cause has made us comrades. Forrest 'Asa' end quote Carter." The only time he ever signed it that way.

Joe Richman

All this leads Ron to a third theory, one I wasn't expecting. Asa didn't change, and he didn't fake a change. The Education of Little Tree is exactly what Asa Carter always believed. Everyone else just misinterpreted it.

Ron Taylor

Well, one way you look at it, it's a tree hugger's book. It's all about nature and this, that, and the other. And the other way it's a right-wing, "government, leave me alone" book. The government took Little Tree and put him in an orphanage, you see. And the government passed the whiskey tax. And the government did this. And the government did that to the American Indian. And that's the way I read it. I was shocked when I found out other people was understanding it differently.

Joe Richman

Ron feels that The Education of Little Tree is speaking directly to him and to what he believes. But I asked Ron, what if it's the other way around? What if you're the one who's wrong?

Ron Taylor

[SIGH] Well, I would like to know myself. If it's what I think it is. What I think it is, I think he wrote it for me, me and my ilk. But I don't know that. Because it's probably been more interpreted the other way-- the other way being the tree hugger way as opposed to my anti-government, anti-cities and government intrusion in our daily lives, that type thing.

I don't know. I know how I took it. But I also know that there's many or more people took it the other way. Asa Carter. I wish I knew what he thought. I really do. But I honestly don't know.

Joe Richman

I don't know myself what to make of the whole thing. But while I was working on this story, I picked up a new copy of The Education of Little Tree and I started to read it to my two daughters. They're loving it. Of course, they don't know the back story. And I'm not sure when I'm going to tell them.

For me, it's kind of confusing to read the book and know the history. Like, am I a sucker for just reading it? Every once in a while, I'll come across a passage, like when five-year-old Little Tree sees a hawk kill a young quail. It makes him sad.

So his grandfather teaches him "the way," which is about taking only what you need and about how nature weeds out the small and the slow so the species can grow stronger and more powerful. And I think, is this some white supremacist secret code of racial purity? Or is it just a lovely lesson about the circle of life and not being greedy?

A few days ago, I was sharing a pastry with one of my daughters. I tore it in half and held out the two pieces. She chose the small one. And then she looked at me and said, "I have learned the way." For her, the book has nothing to do with small government or racial superiority. It's all about trying to understand people different from yourself, just being a good human being.

Whatever Forrest Carter believed in his heart of hearts, it's safe to say this is a book that Asa Carter would have hated.

Alex Blumberg

Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. There's much more from Joe at radiodiaries.org and on the Radio Diaries podcast. We're going to let Asa Carter's old friend from back in the day, Ron Taylor, play us out. He and Asa wrote a song together after Little Tree came out. It was supposed to go in the movie version, but never did.

Ron Taylor

Oh, I put the melody to it. He did all the words. It doesn't mention Little Tree, but it's about-- it comes from the Little Tree book. [SINGING] Let me tell you a betrayal in Tennessee, see? Is that cabin still a-standing on the ridge, on that mountain standing high against a clear and southern sky?

Alex Blumberg

One other thing. Joe is in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign right now. If you liked this story and you want more like it, go back him. Kickstarter plus Radio Diaries.

Ron Taylor

[HUMMING] [SINGING] With that red bone hound a-whining. [HUMMING]

It's been a long time since I sang! [SINGING] in Tennessee.

[MUSIC - "TENNESSEE"]

Alex Blumberg

Coming up, Death. Death is coming up. And death is not who you think it is. That's in a minute from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Unsafety Exit.

Alex Blumberg

It's This American Life. I'm Alex Blumberg sitting in for Ira Glass, who's out this week. Today's show, "180." And we've arrived at Act Two. Act Two, Unsafety Exit.

So you know, every once in a while, someone says, you did a total 360 on that. Like, you did a total 360 on drugs or gay marriage or ferrets. And then someone who knows math will say, it's not a 360. It's a 180. A 180 is when you used to hate dogs and now you love dogs. A 360 would be if you started out hating dogs, then you love dogs, and then you were like, oh yeah, I was right. I do hate dogs.

The next story is about a person who started out wanting the normal 180, but then actually ends up going for the full 360. Chana Joffe-Walt has our story.

Chana Joffe

Michael is a tall, skinny 16-year-old who talks a lot about feelings-- a limited category of feelings, gut feelings. Michael chose turkey for lunch because he had a gut feeling about it. You like his blue shirt? Yeah, he had a gut feeling he should go blue and not red.

Michael

I don't think about a lot of things. It just comes to me. It just happens. Wherever my road leads me, I go to. I, like-- I follow my road.

Chana Joffe

Michael's into his road. Brings it up a lot. The first time Michael heard about Lincoln High School, he was in eighth grade, sitting in class, and his teacher mentioned Lincoln had a strong basketball team. Michael had a gut feeling he should be at Lincoln.

It wasn't that he was unhappy at the store where he was, Union. He liked it. He liked the kids, liked the teachers. But the basketball team was not great. And Michael believed he was destined for the NBA.

His parents were OK with Lincoln. They liked that it had a vocational program. So in August, Michael got a letter that he was in.

Michael

Like, how I felt when I got that letter, say you're on a road. Straight ahead, a mile away is the NBA, right there. It's just a straight path to me. That's how I felt.

Chana Joffe

If you just follow the road, the NBA is one mile away?

Michael

Yeah. And, like, I just couldn't wait to go to school.

Chana Joffe

The first few months of ninth grade at Lincoln, Michael got to school 20 minutes early and waited outside for the doors to open. He says he woke up excited every morning. He did have a 40-minute commute. That part wasn't great. And from the train he had to cross a park they didn't feel super safe. Also, sitting alone in the cafeteria as a new kid-- he hated that.

But it was all OK, because Michael really felt he was at Lincoln to make his dreams come true. He was on his road. So all that other stuff, it was just gnats to swat away until he could get to tryouts in November.

Michael

I was actually really hyped for it. Every class, I was like, oh yeah, it's tryouts. Next period, tryouts. Last period, tryouts. I just kept saying that. And everybody was like, yeah, we're about to get this.

Chana Joffe

Michael showed up in a giant gym, and the coaches started everyone on layup drills.

Michael

But I kept missing. Then we did left hand. And then I missed every left hand. Then we did shooting. It was bad, really bad.

Chana Joffe

What happened?

Michael

Air balls, like the ball kept falling out of my hands. It was just bad. That was the worst I've ever done in my life in basketball.

Chana Joffe

Why do you think you did so badly?

Michael

Probably I was nervous. I did horrible. That's what they looked at me as if I was nothing.

Chana Joffe

Michael didn't even make the first cut.

Michael has a lot of metaphors to describe the next period of his life. He told me it was like the school was wearing a mask. And after tryouts, the mask came off. In this metaphor, Michael concedes he put the mask on the school. The NBA fantasy, that's the mask. But he says after tryouts, the school was naked and it looked ugly.

Suddenly he could see everything clearly. He wasn't a mile away from the NBA. He was lonely, far from home in a huge school he didn't like, in a neighborhood he didn't like, in a life he didn't like.

He started coming to school late, really late, three hours late. He failed his first period class. And when Michael did show up, he'd just spend all his time thinking about his old school, about Union.

At lunch, he'd sit there wondering what they were eating back at Union, which field trips they were going on this year. And then at night, he'd go and check Facebook and try to figure out what happened that day at Union. Michael told his principal he wanted to go back to Union. The principal said there's no way to transfer mid-year. He'd have to wait until the summer, and then see if his old school had a spot for him.

So Michael did what any 15-year-old does when he doesn't like the answer he's given. He asked again and again. And when he got the same answer, he started asking other people.

Michael

I kept asking teachers, how could I transfer out? They said, the only way for you transfer out, you got to get a safety transfer. And that's by something that you feel is, like, dangerous around you that you can't be an area.

Chana Joffe

Safety transfer. That phrase stuck in Michael's brain, mostly because it included the word transfer. So Michael went back to the principal. What about a safety transfer? Can I get one of those? But Michael says the principal laughed. Safety transfers are for people whose safety has been threatened.

Michael

He said, so far you're in good hands, so nothing has happened to you. Like, that I'm safe.

Chana Joffe

That's when it clicked for Michael. The only way to get back to his old school was to make himself less safe. So Michael hatched his plan. There were several steps. It begin with a simple purchase.

Michael

OK. I went to a Chinese website, and I bought the hat.

Chana Joffe

Michael bought a winter hat, an NBA one, a beanie with a fuzzball at the top.

Michael

It was a NBA team beanie, my favorite NBA team, Knicks. Ordered it. Week later, got it. Wore it to school. Get off the train, and I'm making eye contact. I'm trying to make as much eye contact as I can with, like, all the people that kind of looks scary, that had, like, sag in their pants, had chains on.

So I was looking at people. Seeing some kid in the store, right? I just like glared my eyes at him. But, like, I didn't make just eye contact. I stared at them. I counted to three. I said, one, two, three.

Heard, "Yo, boy. Come here." He ran up behind me, tapped me in the chest. I said, "Yeah, what do you want from me?" In the same exact tone. "Yeah, what do you want from me?" He was like, "Yo, you got any money on you? You got your phone on you?"

I was like, "No, I don't. Want my hat, though?" He was like, "Actually, yeah. Give me your hat." I gave it to him. He said, "Yo, if you lying to me, if you have your phone or wallet, don't lie to me. You better give it to me, or my squad's gonna jump you."

Chana Joffe

Michael did have a wallet in his pocket and an iPod in his sock. So he ran, ran across the street fast-- almost got hit by a truck-- and right into the school.

Michael

No, it wasn't like, oh, I just got robbed. I need help. It was, yo! I just got robbed! Son, I just got robbed. I got to tell all the teachers. I'm about to get this transfer!

And then all my friends came up to me, like, yo, I heard you got robbed. I was like, yeah, I got robbed! Kids starting telling teachers. Teachers even came up to me, asking, are you OK?

Went to the principal, told the principal what happened. Went to the precinct, filed a police report. Then I went back to the assistant principal and got my file.

Chana Joffe

Did you feel bad at all?

Michael

No, I was feeling good. It was great. I knew what was going to happen next.

Chana Joffe

Michael called his old school, told them he got a safety transfer. They said OK. Didn't ask any questions. The principal told me, we didn't want to know. After a couple hours with Michael, I told him I couldn't figure out if what he did was brilliant or so stupid, and that I was settling on both. He said that seemed about right.

Michael

Yeah, everything was just coming to me, just fast. Like, my plan, it just went so smoothly and perfect. Like, that's the smartest plan I've came up with so far.

Chana Joffe

But why did you have to get robbed at all?

Michael

That was the only way I could get a safety transfer.

Chana Joffe

But you could have-- but nobody knew that they took your hat, right?

Michael

No.

Chana Joffe

You could have just put the beanie under your bed at home--

Michael

Yeah, that's true.

Chana Joffe

--and said that you got robbed.

Michael

That's true too. I don't know why I did it. I don't know. I just felt like I needed the experience. So, like, instead of me just saying, oh, I got robbed. They took my hat. I said, no! I got robbed! They actually took my hat and left, and they ran away with it!

Like, I put more feelings into what I had to say. And, like, I almost fake cried to the police, too. Like, I kept rubbing my eyes.

Chana Joffe

I talked to Michael's mom. She told me she had already started worrying about the neighborhood around Lincoln. On the day she went to pick up Michael, she hated walking through the park by the school. She started to hear kids were getting jumped for their shoes, book bags. So to her, it didn't matter what her 15-year-old son was up to, whether or not he thought he had some plan. What mattered was that he was actually robbed.

In the middle of ninth grade, Michael went back to Union, right after he turned 15. He says, that is when I fixed my mistake. And if you've ever wondered what it would be like to undo some of the mistakes of your adolescence, to pay attention more in US history, to go unbreak up with that person you broke up with, Michael is here to tell you that it is as awesome as you've always imagined.

Michael

Well, remember my first class was algebra. A girl actually grabbed my hoodie. And she said, oh, you look good nowadays. And she said, you're my boyfriend now. She's, like, one of the popular people who actually grabbed my sweatshirt.

Chana Joffe

Had she noticed you in eighth grade?

Michael

No. I was not cool with her whatsoever. And instead of me being that 5' 5" kid with the light voice, I was that 6' 2" man with a deep voice. I'm like, yo, how's life, blah, blah, blah. I remember walking around. And everybody's like, oh, he's back. He looks way better.

And I remember teachers-- I remember walking into the teachers' lounge. And everybody was screaming, It was like, oh! And that was when I knew that that was my welcome back to my old school.

Chana Joffe

So you think you made the right decision?

Michael

Yup. It was a gut feeling.

Chana Joffe

I point out that it was a gut feeling that led Michael to his original mistake to go to Lincoln. But Michael seems to have a gut feeling that he should not listen to that comment. Michael says the way he sees it, the whole thing was just a U-turn on his road.

Alex Blumberg

Chana Joffe-Walt is a producer on our show.

Act Three. I’m the One Who Knocks.

Alex Blumberg

Act Three, "I'm the One who Knocks." Author Ben Loory has this short story about the 180 that awaits us all. And a quick note to our podcast listeners, there is a curse word that in the podcast we have not beeped. Here's Ben Loory.

Ben Loory

A man was walking down a long, long road when he saw a figure approaching from the distance. The man kept going, wondering who it was, when suddenly he realized it was Death. "Shit," said the man.

He turned and looked around. There was a tree nearby. One with lots of leaves. So the man ran to it and climbed up in the branches and hid amongst the fruits there, peering out.

After a while, he saw Death coming down the road. He held very still and tried not to breathe. Keep going, he thought. Keep going, keep going. But Death didn't obey. Death stopped.

The man felt his heart constrict as death turned to the tree. He felt the blood freeze in his veins as Death looked up. Somehow he knew that despite all the leaves, Death could see him there in his hiding place. How, thought the man. How, if he can't see me, how does he know that I'm here?

And then the men realized that in the grip of fear, his hands were shaking, and they were shaking the tree. Oh, god, thought the man. I have to make them stop. He gripped the branches as tightly as he could.

But the more he tried to hold them still, the more they shook and shook. And the man began to despair. And in the road, Death smiled.

And right then it happened, the worst possible thing. One of the fruits detached from the tree. The man shaking had loosened it and loosened it and loosened it. And now it broke free and it fell.

And Death saw the fruit fall. And Death came closer until he stood at the very foot of the tree. And he turned his head and looked up through the branches and the leaves until he saw the man and the man saw him. And Death smiled and reached down and picked up the fallen fruit. And he opened his mouth and took a bite.

"Yes," said Death, in that voice that Death has. "The unripe fruits are best, I always say."

Panic seized the man. The end, he knew, was near. When Death finished the fruit, he would be next.

Think, thought the man. Think, think, think. But he couldn't think of a single thing to do. And then from somewhere on the other side of panic, an idea suddenly came to the man. It might work, he thought. It really just might work. And purposely, he began to shake the tree.

At first, his efforts had no effect. But the man did not give up. He shook the tree with all the strength he had. He shook the tree with everything, with his entire being. And the little fruits broke free from the tree, and they rained down hard on Death.

"Damn you, Death! Die, die, die!" yelled the man as the fruit smashed against Death's head and face and shoulders. And then with a sudden snap, all the fruits broke free, and they came down like an avalanche. And they buried Death beneath them.

For a while in the aftermath, there was only silence. And then in the silence, the man thought back. And suddenly he realized that that during the rain of fruit, Death had simply laughed and laughed and laughed. The man stayed in the tree for quite some time, until he was sure it was safe.

And then when he climbed down very, very slowly, he stood looking at the great mound of fruit. He tapped it lightly with one foot, and the fruits all rolled aside. And there, beneath, there was no Death. Nothing, nobody, not a thing.

"Well, all right," said the man. "I guess that settles that." And he turned away and hit the road again. Not long thereafter, the man came to a hill. And when he got to the top, he looked down. And there in the valley below, he saw a figure coming towards him. A man, he thought. Just a little man.

And at that very moment, the little man looked up. HE saw the man up on the hill and he froze. He turned and looked around, around the valley, panic-stricken. And he saw a nearby tree and he ran. And the man on the hilltop smiled and watched as the little man started to climb. "You think you can hide," said the man, "from me?" And he walked into the valley to see.

Alex Blumberg

Ben Loory is the author of Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day.

Credits.

Alex Blumberg

Our program was produced today by Ben Calhoun and me, with Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Nikki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Ira Glass is the guy normally in this seat.

Production help from Alison Davis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon, our production manager. Elise Bergerson, our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website.

Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Wayne Greenhaw was interviewed for the Asa Carter in 2011, passed away later that same year.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

Thanks as always to our show's co-founder, Torey Malatia, who was just at the spa getting ready for his Brazilian beach vacation. Apparently there's a new machine there.

Wayne Greenhaw

It just bumfuzzled me.

Alex Blumberg

I'm Alex Blumberg. Ira Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.

Correction: In the original broadcast of this episode, Joe Richman in Act One incorrectly stated that Nathan Bedford Forrest was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The audio and transcript have been changed to reflect that Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, not the founder. We apologize for the error.