Bedford Forrest Carter was born Asa Earl Carter on September 4, 1925, in Anniston, Alabama, and was the eldest of four children in Oxford, Alabama.
Carter served in the United States Navy during World War II and later returned to the University of Colorado, where he attended naval training school in 1944, and also studied radio broadcasting and political writing. By the late 1950s he was in Birmingham, Alabama, where his political activities included hosting a radio show for the American States Rights Association and providing leadership in the Alabama Council movement. Later, he founded the North Alabama White Citizens Council in Birmingham. He wrote speeches for Lurleen Wallace when she ran successfully for the governorship of Alabama in 1966 and was one of two writers said to be responsible for the words "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" uttered by Governor George Wallace. Although Carter is associated by the media with George Wallace and publicly claimed that he wrote speeches for Wallace in the 1960s, Wallace denied any association or collaboration. Carter ran unsuccessfully against Wallace in the Democratic primary for governor in 1970.
After his loss to Wallace, Carter gave up politics and left Alabama. He adopted the pseudonym Bedford Forrest Carter and assumed the role of a largely self-taught, part- Cherokee novelist. His pseudonym was culled from Nathan Bedford Forrest, a colorful, uneducated Confederate general. Carter also used a Cherokee Indian name, Gundi Usdi, which he translated as Little Tree. So complete was his break with his old life that it was not widely known until after his death that the novelist and the former politician were the same man. By 1972 Carter was in Sweetwater, Texas, where he used the resources of the City-County Library to work on his first novel, Gone to Texas (1973). The highly successful film version starring Clint Eastwood is entitled The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). After publishing Gone to Texas, Carter moved to Florida, where he wrote three more novels, namely The Vengeance Trial of Josey Wales (1976), a sequel to his first novel; The Education of Little Tree (1976, reprint 1986); and Watch for Me on the Mountain (1978), a sympathetic portrayal of Geronimo.
Asa Carter's life and the publishing of The Education of Little Tree are wrought with controversy. Although the book is supposed to be autobiographical, there are many that doubt its authenticity. Carter's purported involvement as a writer for segregationist George Wallace and his association with the Ku Klux Klan have been the reasons why so much debate has arisen over his work and his portrayals of race.
Carter was a masterful storyteller whose prose style is characterized by fragments of sentences and fast-paced plots. He was heavily influenced by stories of the Civil War, as well as by his Cherokee heritage. He spent his last years traveling to promote his books, attempting to arrange for films of the last three of them, writing the screenplay for one himself, and composing The Wanderings of Little Tree, an unfinished sequel to his third book. Carter was in the midst of a number of projects at the time of his death, which came as surprisingly as the knowledge of his double life. On June 7, 1979, in Abilene, Texas, Carter choked on food and the clotted blood that formed after a fistfight and died; he is buried near Anniston, Alabama.