BEYOND THE HURRICANE: THE IMPORTANCE OF RUBIN CARTER
“Sometimes readiness and change come only because of all the heartache and pain and deep frustration that has gone on before… And I say this knowing, just as you know, that some of us have been down and are presently still down, into the very depths of the human existence…And yet, whatever the degree of difficulty each one of us has had then it was perhaps that degree of difficulty that each one of us needed!”
-Dr. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an excerpt from the book Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter by James S. Hirsch
April 20, 2014: From here on out will not merely be known in history as the date of Easter Sunday where many believers observed the resurrection of Christ. Nor simply as the day on which marijuana enthusiasts the world over celebrated cannabis culture to the fullest extent with “4:20”. April 20 of this year will forever be known as the day the world lost a man who, much like Nelson Mandela only five months prior, became known as a symbol of racial injustice and the stripping of human rights, but also eventual retribution: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who passed away from prostate cancer at his home in Toronto this past Sunday. Many of us by now know his story well. Carter was a middleweight boxer in the 1960s that became famous for his intimidating persona and athletic prowess, eventually becoming a contender for the middleweight championship. But in 1966, police arrested both Carter and John Artis for a triple-homicide that took place at the Lafayette Bar and Grill, towards what many considered to be near the end of his boxing career.
Both Carter and Artis were tried and convicted twice for the murders nearly a decade apart in 1967 and again in 1976. But after the second conviction was overturned in 1985, Carter was eventually released after nearly 20 years in prison. Carter would eventually go on to be the Executive Director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) from 1993 until 2005, and earn two honorary doctorate degrees from York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and Griffith University in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Carter’s story would eventually go on to inspire the 1975 song “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan and the 1999 major motion picture The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington in the lead role. That same story would inspired many books on Carter’s life and his case, including The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472 and Eye of the Hurricane: My Path From Darkness to Freedom, both by Carter himself, as well as Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter by James S. Hirsch and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter And The American Justice System by Paul B. Wice.
News of his death was covered by the likes of several mainstream outlets like CNN, ESPN, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, CBC, TIME, The New York Daily News, and others. In the article “The Redemption of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter” from The Atlantic, article author Andrew Cohen says that Carter “will forever be a symbol of a racially unjust system – a system that still exists today.”
But the importance of Rubin Carter isn’t necessarily in the Hollywood, music and sports celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan that came to his aid during the 1970s. It isn’t in his international symbolism for racial injustice and the severe restriction of human rights that still continues to pervade the American legal system at all levels for poor people and people of color. It isn’t the fact that he became the subject of a legendary protest song by one of the most prolific songwriters of a generation. It isn’t the fact that he had a movie made about a portion of his life or that he’s had several books written about him. Or, at least, his importance doesn’t exist ONLY in those things.
The importance of Rubin Carter, beyond the moniker of “The Hurricane”, all of the accolades, all of the news coverage on him throughout the years, are the facts that he both suffered similar treatment through his conviction as other long-held prisoners such as the late Nelson Mandela, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the recently released Eddie Conway and so many other men and women. That he truly did lead a life of transformation and transcendence, similar to the likes of both Mandela and Malcolm X. And that he survived, and thrived, to become an example and an aid to people that suffer from his same fate of institutionalization and seek to win long and hard-fought battles for justice and redemption, as he eventually did.
After spending nearly one-quarter of his natural life that we know of in prison, Rubin Carter could have easily went about his business and lived a life shying away from the limelight, away from the public, and away from his past. And though he dealt with his share of hardships, setbacks, pain and heartache even after he left the prison system, Carter chose instead to try being a helping hand to many people in his similar situation through organizations like the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted in Toronto and the Innocence Project in New York. Even in the months prior to his death, Carter worked to help exonerate David McCallum, a man that was incarcerated on charges of murder the same year Carter was finally released.
Let us be perfectly clear: Rubin Carter was no saint. Nor was he anywhere close to being perfect, like all of us. Taking a read of the aforementioned book Hurricane by James Hirsch reveals in harsh and stark detail all of the inner demons, faults, failures, personal strife and broken, shattered relationships Carter had to own up to long after he left prison in 1985. Sometimes, these things were of his own doing. But with all of the sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds that are faced by African Americans, people of color, poor people and other underserved communities that are going through what Carter experienced, be it racial profiling, a fractured, biased justice system, a dangerous, repressive and the continued privatization of the prison system, especially with many of our young black men, and the prominence of Rubin Carter’s life, example and efforts to become magnified one hundred times over.
In the end, it is necessary that we make Rubin Carter’s fight our fight. Not merely so that we pat ourselves on the back and say that we were involved in our own little way, and not only to say that we can ceremoniously hold him up as a symbolic martyr for this cause. But because if we do not, so many more of our brothers and sisters could very well suffer the same or a worse fate than Carter did. After all, the Hurricane would want it that way.