Lesra Martin came to fame when Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was released from prison after serving almost twenty years for three murders he did not commit. Lesra had befriended Carter as a teenager, after reading his autobiography "16th Round: From #1 Contender to Prisoner #45472", and had worked hard to raise publicity for Carter's cause and secure his release. Lesra is portrayed by Vicellous Reon Shannon in the movie "The Hurricane", which stars Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter.
Lesra Martin was born in 1963 to Earl and Alma Martin, the second eldest son in a family of eight kids. They began as a black middle-class family in Queens, New York but sunk into poverty in the Bushwick slum when Earl suffered an injury and couldn't work and Earl and Alma found solace in drinking. Like his siblings, Lesra took jobs to help feed the family: bagging groceries, sweeping up in the local bar. But he was ambitious: he attended school every day and was near the top of his class. He dreamed of being a lawyer one day.
When he was fifteen he got a summer job in an environmental lab in Brooklyn. There, he met Lisa Peters, Terry Swinton and Sam Chaiton, Canadian entrepreneurs who had brought an engine to be tested at the lab. Lesra didn't really know where Canada was, and he thought the Canadians "talked funny", but they liked each other and became friends. One day his new friends drove him home, and they were shocked by the squalid slum and chaotic crowded home where Lesra lived. There was nothing like it in Toronto, where they had a communal home. They invited Lesra to come and visit them for the weekend, and when he did, offered to have him come and live with them and complete high school. Lesra's parents agonized about the decision, but saw that it was an opportunity for Lesra to escape the gangs and drugs and violence that had already swallowed their older son. In tears, they agreed to let Lesra go.
A New Life in Canada
In Toronto, his new "family" was horrified to discover that Lesra was functionally illiterate. Lesra was humiliated, and for years thought of himself as "stupid". But his new family didn't think so. They encouraged him to learn to read by quietly immersing him in a world of books. They took him to bookstores and book sales, where one day he spied a copy of Carter's autobiography and bought it for a quarter. This book fascinated and moved him, and he wrote a letter to Carter, by this time jailed for fourteen years. The contact led to phone calls and then visits, and Lesra's Canadian family became involved as well. Together, they helped renew interest in Carter's cause, and were catalysts in his eventual release. In 1991 Chaiton and Swinton released their version of Lesra and Carter's story, "Lazarus and the Hurricane: the Untold Story of Freeing Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter"; this book would form the basis of the movie "The Hurricane".
An Educated Man
Lesra had graduated with honours from high school when he was 20 and was 22 by the time Carter was released. Carter moved to Toronto and lived with Lesra and the Canadians for a time, and though Carter and the Canadians eventually fell out and became estranged, Carter and Lesra have retained a father-son relationship, with all the closeness and pain that such a bond entails. Meanwhile, Lesra earned an honours BA in anthropology from the University of Toronto in 1988, and then pursued his childhood dream, completing his law degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1997. In Halifax he met Cheryl Tynes, a fellow law student; the two married in 1998.
Lesra had gained some fame from his association with Carter and it flared up every time Carter was in the news again. He and Cheryl decided to move to a small town where no one knew them and where they could live without the burden of recognition and went to live in Kamloops, British Columbia and work as lawyers. Kamloops is a small town, and a very white one, but they were happy and felt accepted there.
The making of the movie thrust Lesra into the spotlight once again, and this time he seized the chance offered, giving up his practice and working as a motivational speaker. He has spoken at the United Nations and on Larry King Live and Oprah about his experiences and about the devastating effects of illiteracy. He is working on his autobiography, to be published soon.
It all appears a fairy story, but there's a dark side to Lesra as well, and it concerns his guilt at being the "chosen one" in his family and his worry about the difficulties and dangers that face those he left behind. Lesra was given the gift of a chance and he took it, but his brothers and sisters did not have that chance and paid the price. His eldest brother was jailed because of gang activities; behind bars he contracted HIV and recently died of AIDS. One of his younger brothers - a smart and sensitive lad not unlike Lesra himself - was shot by a paranoid drug addict who fired into a crowd: he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such things torment Lesra, for he knows that he could just as easily have died senselessly. The flip side is the strong family bonds that help his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, and grandparents survive their harsh ghetto life. A recent NFB documentary about Lesra, "The Journey of Lesra Martin", dramatically illustrates the bittersweet contrast betweeen Lesra and his relations: they, laughing, joking, piled on couches, dissing one another, mumbling their non-standard English; and he, somewhat stiff, accompanied by his wife, well-dressed, articulate, different. He envies them their closeknit family life, even as he celebrates the opportunities he has enjoyed.
Lesra's official website, and a major source for this write-up, is www.lesramartin.com/