The complicated life of Rubin Carter

Carter, right, wrote that Hurricane was "an accurate description of the destructive forces that raged within my soul." (AP Photo)

He was a complicated man. But how could he have been otherwise?

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who died on Easter Sunday, had been transformed into a living symbol of justice denied long before he began the last chapter of his life as a free man in Toronto.

He was a very good professional boxer whose career was in decline in June 1966 when he and an acquaintance, 19-year-old John Artis, were charged with murdering three white men at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, N.J. They were twice convicted, wrongfully, of that crime. While serving three consecutive life sentences following his first trial, Carter published his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, in which he introduced himself this way:

“Rubin, my Christian name, comes from the Book of Genesis, chapter 29, verse 32, of the Holy Scriptures. Other than both of us being black, that’s about the only thing the Bible and I ever had in common.

“Hurricane is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. It provides an accurate description of the destructive forces that raged within my soul.

“Carter is the slave name that was given to my forefathers who worked in the cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia, and was passed on to me. The name is like any other—worthless—but it’s the one that appears on my birth certificate.”

It is a brilliant, searing book, and it inspired many of its readers to take up his cause, including Bob Dylan, who made his protest in song, though it would be more than a decade before Carter’s conviction was finally thrown out.

A diligent and selfless team of lawyers were the heroes of that story, though in the public eye they would be supplanted by a group of idealistic Canadians who lived together in a kind of capitalist commune, and became involved in Carter’s case after Lesra Martin, a poor Brooklyn-raised boy whom they had taken in, read The Sixteenth Round. Carter moved in with them after his release from prison, and eventually married the commune’s dominant personality, Lisa Peters.

It was during those years that many of us met him for the first time, and got to know him as a charmer with a wide, disarming smile, as someone capable of great rhetorical flourishes in a preacher’s cadence. It was also then when the first hints came that all was not completely as it seemed.

In 1999, Carter’s story—or at least the Canadians’ version of Carter’s story, adapted from their book Lesra and the Hurricane—was turned into a feature film by the director Norman Jewison, starring Denzel Washington in the title role. It was a Hollywood movie that played fast and loose with the facts (though no one claimed it was a documentary) and earned Washington an Oscar nomination. By the time of the film’s Toronto premiere, Carter and the Canadians were deeply estranged—he sat in one part of the theatre, they sat in another, and spoke not a word, exchanged not a glance. No longer married to Peters, Carter had chafed at the control he believed the commune had exercised over his life.

After becoming independent of them, he began to devote himself to other victims of injustice—notably, Guy Paul Morin—and eventually became the executive of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC). Another book followed, in which Carter, among other things, detailed his disaffection with the Canadians.

It is telling that none of those people—the Canadians, Martin, Dylan, his associates at AIDWYC—were still in contact him three years after he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer. They have all said nice things about Carter, as etiquette requires when someone dies, but the truth is, all of them had fallen out with him, often over money, which became a recurring theme in his later life.

It is equally telling who was there at the end: John Artis, a tall, thin, soft-spoken man who barely knew Carter before they shared a ride on that fateful night in 1966. Between their first and second trials, Artis was offered clemency in return for testimony that would have implicated Carter in the shootings. He refused, and instead spent 15 years in prison. When he learned of Carter’s illness, Artis uprooted and moved to Toronto, and spent the final months of Carter’s life by his side.
“I respect Rubin, and he respects me,” Mr. Artis said when we met in 2000. “And I’m honoured that he says I’m his hero.”
The final word, though, must go to Rubin Carter, the plea that affected so many as they read the final page of The Sixteenth Round.

“I come to you in the only manner left open to me. I’ve tried the courts, exhausted my life’s earnings, and tortured my two loved ones with little grains and tidbits of hope that may never materialize. Now the only chance I have is in appealing directly to you, the people, and showing you the wrongs that have yet to be righted, the injustice that has been done to me. For the first time in my entire existence I’m saying that I need some help. Otherwise, there will be no more tomorrow for me: no more freedom, no more injustice, no more State Prison; no more Rubin—no more Carter. Only the Hurricane.
And after him, there is no more.”

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