Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
Bob Dylan, "Hurricane"
Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was a promising young boxer when he and a friend were charged with a triple murder. He spent eighteen years in prison for this crime, before being exonerated and released. He is the subject of the movie The Hurricane, and lives in Toronto, Canada.
He was born in 1937 in Paterson, New Jersey, a poor, crime-ridden neighbourhood. As a child he stammered badly, and learned to lash out with violence when teased. Legend has it he punched out a bulldog at ten years old. When he was eleven, he stabbed a white man with broken glass and stole his watch. Though he claimed the man had been molesting one of his friends, his excuse didn't get him off the hook: he was sent to the State Home for boys, a juvenile detention centre.
In 1954, as soon as he was old enough, he ran away and joined the army, serving in a segregated corps. He later recalled that when they travelled the white soldiers ate in restaurants while the black soldiers ate cold bologna sandwiches on the bus. This type of humiliation rankled, but in the army he learned to put his fury to good use in the boxing ring. In Germany he won two light-welterweight championships. He also learned to use his brain: he began to study Islam and enrolled in a Dale Carnegie speech program.
In 1956, fed up with the army and ready to turn pro, Carter returned to New Jersey, only to be seized by the authorities and made to serve out the last ten months of his sentence. Finally free, he found the grand neighbourhoods he remembered from his childhood eaten by urban decay; black America was going through a tough time.
Rubin Carter was a young man filled with simmering anger and ready to make a name for himself. He began boxing professionally and gained the nickname Hurricane for his fast and furious style of fighting.
Carter showed great promise as a pugilist. In 1961 he had a four-fight winning streak which included two knockouts. Over the next five years he had 27 wins in 40 fights, with twenty knockouts, eight in the first round. He was successful and not afraid to show it: he lived the high life, shaved his head years before it was fashionable, and was outspoken about racism. Interviewed for the Saturday Evening Post in 1964, he complained of police occupations of black neighbourhoods, and exhorted black people to defend themselves "by any means necessary". In this time of bitter racial divides and white fear of the Nation of Islam and its charismatic spokesperson, Malcolm X, the words were menacing. The authorities had their eye on Hurricane Carter.
In 1966 three white men were killed in a bar in Paterson, Carter's hometown; the two black killers drove off in a white car. Carter had been at a different club, and had given a ride home to an acquaintance, John Artis, in his white Dodge. They were picked up by the police but were not identified as perpetrators by the lone survivor; Carter was interrogated and given a polygraph, but set free. The police said at the time he was not a suspect.
But five months later that Carter and Artis were arrested and charged. The police had managed to get testimony and accusations from two thieves - Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley - who had been involved in a robbery near where the shootings had taken place.
For the trial there was no evidence linking Carter and Artis to the murders - no fingerprints, no motive, no gunpowder traces on hands; no murder weapon was ever found. There was only the word of two felons who, it was later revealed, received money and reduced sentences for their testimony. But it was enough; Carter and Artis were tried and convicted by an all-white jury, and in 1967 were sentenced to three life terms in prison, Carter's to be served consecutively.
Carter was originally sent to Trenton State Prison. He refused to accept prison clothing, and was thrown into solitary confinement for a time, wearing a $5,000 diamond ring, a gold watch, a shark-skin suit, and black patent-leather shoes. In 1970 he was transferred to Rahway, where he began to study law and write his autobiography, "The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472". Bob Dylan read it and wrote a song about Carter, "Hurricane"; celebrities like Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali spoke out for Carter. For a time he was a cause celebre.
In 1974 Bello and Bradley recanted their testimony. The New York Times wrote a scathing article about the racist Passaic County prosecutor's office, and in 1976 Carter and Artis were freed on bail pending a second trail. For six months they were free, but then Bello reversed his story again, and the two men went back to prison.
Triumph Over Adversity
This was understandably a low time for Carter. He gave away all his law books and began to study literature, reading "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl and Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha". One day while walking in the prison yard on a sweltering summer day Carter had a vision: he saw a spot of light through the cement wall. The hole grew larger, then larger, and for a brief moment he could see right through the wall to the street beyond, full of people and cars and normal life. Given hope by the vision, he resolved to focus on that hole in the wall, not on the wall itself.
In 1982 the New Jersey Supreme Court voted 4-3 in favour of the convictions. Carter wrote to the minority judges thanking them.
But during this decade Carter's story took a strange twist. A young black teenager from the slums of Brooklyn, Lesra Martin, met a group of Canadians who were visiting New York. The Canadians took a liking to the young man and invited him up to visit them at their entrepreneurial commune in Toronto for the weekend. While he was there they asked him if he wanted to stay; he did, and his parents, after some soul-searching, acquiesced. Though near the top of his high school class in Brooklyn, Martin's new "family" - led by Lisa Peters, Terry Swinton and Sam Chaiton - were shocked to discover that he was practically illiterate. They strove to surround him with books, and one day at a used book sale he spied Carter's out-of-print autobiography; he bought it for a quarter. That simple purchase changed the lives of many people.
The young man wrote the convict and eventually travelled to meet him in prison. Back in Toronto, Martin, along with Peters, Swinton, and Chaiton - often called "the Canadians" in the American press - raised money and publicity for Carter's cause. In 1985 federal judge H. Lee Sarokin reviewed Carter's case and wrote:
The extensive record clearly demonstrates that the petitioners' convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure... To permit convictions to stand which have as their foundation appeals to racial prejudice and the withholding of evidence critical to the defense is to commit a violation of the Constitution as heinous as the crimes for which these petitioners were tried and convicted.
He ordered Carter freed.
Carter moved to Toronto and into the commune, leaving the United States behind. Carter still resides in this city, where he works as a motivational speaker and heads up the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted.
In 1991 Chaiton and Swinton released their version of the story, "Lazarus and the Hurricane: the Untold Story of Freeing Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter". Their book, along with Carter's original autobiography, form the basis for the rather romanticized movie "Hurricane", directed by Norman Jewison and starring Denzel Washington in one of his best roles ever. The film presents a heartwarming story, but it glosses over a few warts.
For though most people believe Carter was wrongfully convicted, it's clear too that he's no saint. He's a prickly volatile man who doesn't trust easily. He estranged himself from his first family when he went to jail, and doesn't talk to "the Canadians" anymore, even though he was married for a time to Peters. His relationship with Lesra Martin has been rocky; Martin says they go through periods of not talking when Carter gets angry - as when Martin moved to Halifax to get a law degree - but they always reconcile. But whatever his character flaws, Carter's triumph over the racism of American society and the unjust imprisonment that it caused is inspiring, as are his summing up of the results of that time:
There is no bitterness. If I was bitter, that would mean they won.
Carter's story was recently retold yet again, this time in James S. Hirsch's authorized biography "Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter", released in 2000 just in time to ride the wave of the publicity of the movie.
Rubin Carter died on April 20, 2014 as a result of prostate cancer. He was 76 years old.