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The man who shot Asa Carter

June 6, 2011

About six years ago Bob Adams stumbled upon the year-old Birmingham History Center and presented curator Marvin Whiting with bundles of unsorted personal memorabilia accumulated during his 44-year career as a Birmingham News photographer. At age 84, Adams donated boxes of news clippings and photos in an effort, he said, to “clear out” his Hoover home.

At least, that’s what we know from curator’s notes written in Adams’ file. Adams passed away in 2009 and Marvin died last November.

But that’s not all that remains.  Included in those boxes of tear sheets and curled photos is the unmarked news photograph pictured here.

Asa Carter, lower left

It was uncovered only a few weeks ago during the cataloging process — admittedly backlogged–and remained a mystery until Google and a few telephone calls shed some rays of light on the subject photograph:  An apparent courthouse assault on the Anniston-born firebrand segregationist Asa Carter in 1957.

For any further identification, we’ll turn to readers who might have something to offer. Please reply below.

Here’s what we think we know:  According to a News employee who researched Carter for a film documentary, Carter was attacked at the courthouse in 1957 upon being acquitted of shooting (but only wounding) two members of his own Klan group at the Central Park Theater in Midfield. That’s him in the lower left, lit cigarette in his mouth. No negatives are available at the newspaper, and on second thought, the researcher said, it could easily have been taken after Carter’s Klan people beat up Nat King Cole, in 1956.

Another source says it was a courthouse scuffle in 1957 following Carter’s arrest. At least two accounts say Carter shot the men over money; the Encyclopedia of Alabama says the charges were later dropped (the shooter–robed in the unique gray-hooded garb that marked Carter’s Klan–was not identifiable).

The Adams image also ran, with no observable credit, in a 1992 Texas Monthly story by Dana Rubin, one of many writers publishing after Carter was exposed for penning the fraudulent story, The Education of Little Tree, under the name Forrest Carter, and assuming the identity of a Cherokee man whose memoirs of his orphaned boyhood provided the narrative.

Biographical accounts of Carter’s life–even credible ones–conflict on dates and details, but all agree Carter was a talented, multi-faceted, and ruthless segregationist and anti-Semite.

On the other side of the lens,photographer Robert Adams led quite a different life.  Adams was a Wilton native who started his career as a copy boy at The News in 1941 and was shortly promoted to photographer.

Robert Adams in 1967

He was transferred to manager of the color department in the mid-1960s,  and for a while shot all the paper’s color work. His skills earned him the admiration of surviving colleagues Tom Self, 78, and Ed Jones, 84, both of Birmingham.

“Robert was a nice guy,” Self said.  “He was what I called a true Southern gentleman.  He took care of his job and treated people fine and didn’t let his looks hold him back.”

Adams’ “looks” were in fact disfiguring burns from an accident suffered at age 8 or 9.  Dressed as Santa Claus at a childhood Christmas party, Adams’ costume caught fire when he backed into a candlelit Christmas tree. He suffered third degree burns and lost two fingers from each of his hands.

As an adult, Adams had some function restored through several procedures by Tuscaloosa surgeons, Jones said.  He and his wife Trudy adopted three brothers from the United Methodist Children’s Home, in Selma, and had one son of their own. Despite his injuries, he was a skilled carpenter as well as photographer, and practically built his first family home on Darlington Street in Hoover.

Adams never misrepresented himself.  The only case of fraud linked to him was being mistaken for the Adamsville-born Medal of Honor recipient Red Irwin, who was also severely burned in the process of safely jettisoning a detonated phosphorus bomb in an aircraft over Koriyama Japan during World War II.

“People called him ‘Red’ all the time,” Jones said. “They’d say, ‘Hi, Red,’ and it got to where it was just easier to say ‘Hi’ back than to explain.”
Adams retired in 1985 and died in 2009 at age 88. Neither Self nor Jones could specifically identify the picture he left behind, but weren’t surprised he kept it.

Like most photographers of that era, he made several attempts at printing each picture before having a copy good enough to file, Self said. In Adams’ case, a discarded print might get thrown into his locker to take home. “Robert had kept some of his pictures that he liked and thought had historical significance,” he said. “Robert was always one to save pictures.  I shot a ton of stuff, but I never did keep any of it.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. DonShsrpe permalink
    July 5, 2014 8:08 am

    In reference to photo of Asa Carter with BPD Officers Capt Connie Pitts and Det Vernon T. Hart on right w/ glasses and not Ed Alley as referenced. I was Photographer at BPD and worked with both Officers.

    Like

    • Liz Ellaby permalink*
      July 5, 2014 8:32 am

      Thanks for the correction. I probably need to repost this story, with all the corrections. Mr. Sharpe–I bet you have some photographs yourself worthy of another blog? Send an email (bjhm@bham.rr.com) or reply here if you do.

      –Liz Ellaby

      Like

      • DonShsrpe permalink
        July 5, 2014 9:52 am

        Yes over 31years in Det Division, although most of my photographs were archived as evidence, but I have hundreds of Training Photos on my FB Site for Police Retirees only not for general public.

        Like

  2. Stan Pitts permalink
    November 21, 2013 9:48 pm

    My name is Stan Pitts, and I am the second son of Captain Connie H. Pitts, who is indeed the man in the upper left corner of the 1957 or 1958 photo. I have a print of this photograph that my father had for many years. My dad died in May 2002, and my mother died in February 2012. I found the photo while going through her papers, but I knew about it because I had conducted an oral history with my father in October 2000. In that interview, which is in the Oral History Collection at the University of North Texas, dad told me the story behind the photo. Asa Carter was a notorious segregationist involved in unlawful activities and violence resulting from his association and subsequent split with the Ku Klux Klan-based Alabama Citizens Council. Asa was a suspect in a shooting, and my father was a homicide detective. The chief of police called dad and his partner Detective Ed Alley (the man on the far right of the photo), said Asa was giving himself up at the court house and to go arrest him. When they arrived, Asa, his attorney and some others were milling around. They went into the courtroom, and suddenly Asa had a change of heart and tried to run. My dad (who was a big man) and detective Alley grabbed him to prevent his escape. A photographer snapped the picture, but I don’t know if it was Adams. I have also heard that it was a Look Magazine photographer, and that the photo appeared in that magazine. I didn’t know about this site until today 11/21/13, and hope that the information is helpful. I now live in Anchorage, Alaska, and Kelley lives in Trussville, AL. He was an officer for only a few years, and I was never a police officer. My older brother Mike was an officer for 19 years, and died in October 2004. And on a personal note, hello Phillip. It’s been a very long time.
    Stan Pitts

    Like

  3. Philip Gilmer permalink
    December 22, 2011 11:33 pm

    Connie Pitts had in fact three sons: Mike, Stanley and Kelly. Stan might have been with the BPD at one time, but Kelly has worked for Sonat/El Paso Energy for years. Mike was with Birmingham PD for many years but died in 2001.

    Like

  4. Jeff Webb permalink
    June 13, 2011 1:41 pm

    The man grabbing Carter appears to be the late Connie Pitts, a Birmingham police officer who rose to the rank of Captain and retired in the mid-1980s. Pitts had two sons, one I believe was named Mike. He spent some time with the Birmingham Police and moved on. A second son, Kelly, graduated from the Birmingham Police Academy in the early 1980s and served with the BPD for a while. He quit and went to the Gulf Shores (ALA) PD aftter several years. Perhaps if they could be located, they could verify his identity for sure.

    Like

    • Liz Ellaby permalink
      June 13, 2011 1:54 pm

      Thank you. I’ll make a few calls and update the post when I hear something. Did you just happen to recognize him?

      Like

      • Jeff Webb permalink
        August 13, 2011 5:53 pm

        Sorry to be so long. I guess I never got back to this post. I worked at the Birmingham Police Department from 1964-1985. That’s why I’m pretty sure it is Connie Pitts…..

        Like

  5. Dez permalink
    June 7, 2011 10:50 am

    Great article, it is unusual to read a story about the other side of the camera lens. In this photo, Mr. Adams was close enough to be in danger of receiving a stray punch. Sometimes news photographers get in harms way, so it is fitting to pay homage to their bravery. It is also interesting to find out that newspaper photographers often do not keep their images.

    On the other side of the story, Asa Carter must have been a man a great contraditions. Not mentioned in the article is the fact that he also wrote a book which became the basis for “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a Clint Eastwood movie which I personally will never look at again without thinking of one of the notorious segregationists of the 20th century.

    Like

  6. John Morse permalink*
    June 6, 2011 10:52 pm

    Forrest Carter, was “outed” as Asa Carter by Alabama journalist Wayne Greenhaw, in an August 1976 article in the New York Times. The fact that the memoir was fake escaped the editors of the 1985 re-issue, and thereby escaped public notice for a while longer.

    Greenhaw died just last week from complications from heart surgery at UAB. His most recent book, published in January, recalls his decades covering Civil Rights issues in Alabama and is well worth reading.

    Like

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