Vale Rubin Hurricane Carter – May 6th 1937 to 20th April 2014.
The title of this article are the words of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. A number of us who have worked in the area of racism and equality know the name and have followed some of his journey over a period of time. However, there are others who would not know the details of the odyssey that is his life. Around two years ago he was here in Perth for a “Justice” Conference. Paul Murray from Radio Station 6PR interviewed him. Yesterday, to commemorate his passing, Paul replayed the interview. You can listen to the full interview here:
Rubin Carter was born on May 6 1937 in New Jersey. He was the fourth of seven children. He was around 14 when he received his first entry on a criminal record. He was sentenced to a juvenile reformatory for assault. But he was not a person to be tied down for long. In 1954 he escaped from the reformatory and joined the army. It was here that he learned to box. But in 1956 he was discharged from the army and charged for the escape from the reformatory. This time he was confined to a prison in Annandale. The next few years were an exercise in many trips to and from the prison. A series of muggings, assault and robbery saw him imprisoned in East Jersey State Prison, the Rahway and Trenton state prisons.
In 1961 he became a professional boxer as a middleweight pugilist. He became quite an accomplished boxer and was ranked in the lower part of the top ten in the world. Over the years he got up to the number three ranking. He unsuccessfully challenged the title holder in 1964. Right through this period he continued to be dogged by skirmishes with the law. But he boasted an impressive resume in the boxing ring. He fought 40 times and ended with 27 wins, 12 losses and one draw.
In June 1966 the incident that he was convicted for (wrongfully as it turned out later) occurred in the Lafayette Bar and Grill at East 18th Street in Paterson, New Jersey. The details of the incident are well documented. See here: Both Carter and his friend John Artis were convicted of the crime. Despite the prosecutors pushing for the death penalty, the jurors recommended life sentences for each murder. In 1974 the alleged witnesses to the murder, recanted their testimony. These recantations were used as a basis for a new trial. This was also the time that Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, among others lent their support to the campaign to help Artis and Carter. Dylan’s song in 1975 categorically declared that Carter was innocent. The first verse of the song is as follows:
Pistols shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out “My God they killed them all”
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
Despite the support of these high profile advocates, the jury after a nine hour deliberation again found Artis and Carter guilty of the murders. Carter again received a double life sentence and Artis a single life sentence. Artis was paroled in 1981. Another appeal, in 1982 on behalf of Carter, was lodged by his attorneys. After much more compelling evidence was adduced indicating that there had been lies told by witnesses in the original trial finally in 1985 Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin granted the writ. He noted that the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure”. In November of that year Carter was released from jail without bail. He was then 48 years old.
Anyone who went through the trials and tribulations that Rubin Hurricane Carter had been through could rightly have been forgiven for being bitter and angry. The mark of the genuineness of this man is exemplified in the interview I referred to earlier that was conducted by Paul Murray on 6PR. Carter is matter of fact in his opinion and recognises the racism that is so evident in American society. He refers to that racism with no anger, malice or hatred. He refers to it as a statement of undeniable fact that needs to be dealt with. Importantly also, in the interview he keeps reminding us of the massively principled stance that his best friend John Artis took right through the journey. At any point in that odyssey, Artis could have forsaken him and plea bargained to save his own skin. He chose not to and this cemented their friendship forever.
It was in March 2012 when Carter was in Perth (when the interview with Murray was broadcast) that he revealed that he had terminal prostate cancer. Many readers of this article were likely fortunate enough to have met Carter when he was here. Estelle Blackburn (herself no stranger to this area, having worked tirelessly in achieving the overturning of the convictions of Beamish and Button) posted this on social media yesterday:
“My first meeting with the Hurricane was at an innocence conference in Toronto in 2000. The great man came to Perth twice to support the efforts of JusticeWA to create awareness of how the justice system can get it wrong. He and John Artis, convicted with him, were only exonerated thanks to a group of Toronto people who learnt about the case, believed the convictions were wrong, based on race, and worked determinedly to prove it – and did. Rubin took up this work for others.”
In the interview with Paul Murray, there was no bitterness nor any angst exhibited by Carter. When I asked Paul for a comment about the man, he had this anecdote to convey:
He was the loveliest bloke with a great sense of humour. He and his mate John Artis liked the interview and wanted a picture taken afterwards.
I was at the end of the three and Rubin told me to get in the middle. As soon as I did they threw their arms around me and Rubin said: “John, we made ourselves an Oreo.” after the famous chocolate biscuit with a cream centre.
They both laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes.
Yes. It was an honour to have Rubin interview himself with John playing it for laughs!!
Geoffrey Robertson wrote a tribute to Hurricane Carter here:
The final paragraph of Robertson’s article exemplifies the nature of the man brilliantly:
“The Hurricane” devoted the rest of his life to projects that secured the release of innocent prisoners and campaigned powerfully against the death penalty – he was, after all, the living embodiment of the argument. He died over Easter in the presence of John Artis, the friend who lost two decades of his own life as punishment for refusing to help the New Jersey police to send Rubin to the electric chair.
It is clear that we have lost an exceptional man. A campaigner not just for his own rights but also for the rights of all people convicted wrongly by the justice system but also a man who looked beyond race. As he said in the interview on 6PR “it is a game – the justice system is a game”!