Carter had been an active participant in several white supremacist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens' Council. He was also a speechwriter for Alabama governor George Wallace, for whom he allegedly wrote Wallace's famous line "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Although Carter claimed to be part Cherokee, in 1970 he ran for governor of Alabama against Wallace and others (Wallace eventually won another term after a runoff), on a White supremacist platform, finishing fourth among the seven candidates listed on the Democratic Party ballot.
In the years following his active political engagement, Carter left Alabama, changed his name, and began his second career as an author, taking care to conceal his background. He even claimed categorically in a 1976 article in The New York Times that he, Forrest, was not Asa Carter.
It is believed by some that Carter wrote The Education of Little Tree from his childhood memories of his Cherokee uncle, though his brother has said the family has no American Indian members. The publisher's remarks in the original edition of the book inaccurately describe Carter as "Storyteller in Council" to the Cherokee Nation. When Carter's background was widely publicized in 1991, the book was reclassified by the publisher as fiction. Today, a debate continues as to whether the book's lessons are altered by the identity of the author. As award-winning author Sherman Alexie has said, "Little Tree is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden White supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a White supremacist."
Members of the Cherokee Nation have said that so-called "Cherokee" words and many customs in The Education of Little Tree are inaccurate, and some have said that the novel's characters are stereotyped. Several scholars and critics have agreed with this assessment, adding that Carter's treatment of Native Americans possibly plays into the romantic but racist conceit of the "Noble Savage."
When Carter died in 1979, he was working on The Wanderings of Little Tree, a sequel to The Education of Little Tree, and on a screenplay version of the book. Twelve years after Carter's death, the fact that Forrest Carter was actually Asa Earl Carter was revealed in a 1991 New York Times exposé by Dan T. Carter, a distant cousin and history professor. The supposed autobiographical truth of The Education of Little Tree was revealed to be a hoax.
In 2007, Oprah Winfrey pulled the book from a list of recommended titles on her website. While Winfrey had promoted the book on her TV show in 1994, calling the novel "very spiritual," after learning the truth about Carter she said she "had to take the book off my shelf."
Prior to the public controversy surrounding the author's identity and legitimacy, The Education of Little Tree was critically acclaimed and won the 1991 American Booksellers Association Book of the Year (ABBY) award.
In 1997, the book was adapted into a film of the same title, which was initially meant to be a made-for-TV movie but was instead given a theatrical release. In 2011, a documentary, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter, which examines the life of the author, was released; it has aired frequently on PBS.  On June 13, 2014, This American Life aired an episode ("180 Degrees") about recounting the possible change of attitude of Forrest Carter.