The Path of the Hurricane

Cover of Hurricane Carter book

The Path of the Hurricane
| Published April 21, 2014|

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter could have become one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters to ever box, but the system and racial prejudice ruined his life.

Carter recently passed away in his sleep at the age of 76, succumbing to prostate cancer, although his entire life was plagued by suffering.

He spent almost two decades in prison for murders he didn't commit. Carter and John Artis were convicted for a triple murder at a Paterson, New Jersey, tavern in 1966, followed by matching convictions at their retrial in 1976.

Carter was eventually freed in November 1985 after his convictions were set aside following years of appeals and public outcry. The racial motivations and his plight were trumpeted in Bob Dylan's 1975 song "Hurricane," along with several books on the subject.

Denzel Washington received an Academy Award nomination for playing the boxer turned prisoner in a 1999 film, although the film makers took poetic license with certain significant events.

Carter, 27-12-1 with 19 knockouts, was an undersized middleweight contender because of his ferocity and punching power. His most memorable bout was a first-round knockout of two-division champion Emile Griffith. He also fought gamely in a 15-round middleweight title bout in December 1964, ultimately losing a split decision to Joey Giardello.

Carter's life was permanently ruined in June 1966 when three white patrons were shot by two black men at the Lafayette Bar and Grill. An all-white jury quickly convicted Carter and Artis largely on the testimony of two thieves who later recanted their stories.

"I wouldn't give up," Carter said in an interview on PBS in 2011. "No matter that they sentenced me to three life terms in prison. I wouldn't give up. Just because a jury of 12 misinformed people ... found me guilty did not make me guilty. And because I was not guilty, I refused to act like a guilty person."

After reading his autobiography, Bob Dylan met Carter and co-wrote "Hurricane," performing the song throughout his Rolling Thunder Review tour in 1975.

Muhammad Ali also publicized Carter's story, along with advertising art director George Lois and numerous other liberal celebrities.

A network of friends and volunteers valiantly fought for Carter's release, which was eventually granted by U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin, who stated that Carter's prosecution was "predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure."

Carter was born into a poor family of seven children on May 6, 1937, struggling with a hereditary speech impediment. He entered a juvenile reform center at 12 following an assault, eventually escaping and joining the Army in 1954. Entering a racially segregated military, Carter became an extremely skilled boxer while stationed in West Germany, winning two European light welterweight championships. After returning to New Jersey following his Army stint, he served four years in state prisons for a series of muggings.

His professional boxing career began in 1961, winning 20 of his first 24 fights. Carter was fairly short at 5-foot-8, but he was aggressive and peppered opponents with a constant barrage of punches, making him a contender for the middleweight crown.

He shaved his head and sported a menacing glower which went over well in the ring—not so much in the private sector. In a 1964 Saturday Evening Post article Carter joked about killing police officers, which he later recalled may have caused his problems with law enforcement.

Carter was at the height of his career, with his bouts being steadily televised—Madison Square Garden, London, Paris and Johannesburg. Although starting into a slight valley careerwise, Carter was angling for another title shot when he as implicated in the tavern murders.

He and Artis were questioned after Carter's white car was seen near the murder site, vaguely matching a witness description. They were soon released, but the police re-arrested them months later. Their June 1967 convictions stemmed primarily from testimony by thieves Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley, who later recanted their stories. Carter defied guards from his first day in prison, spending countless hours in solitary confinement.

"When I walked into prison, I refused to wear their stripes," Carter said. "I refused to eat their food. I refused to work their jobs, and I would have refused to breathe the prison's air if I could have done so."

Carter's autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, was published in 1974, followed by numerous benefit concerts held for his legal defense.

He moved to Toronto following his release, serving as executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted from 1993 to 2005. He would eventually receive two honorary doctorates for his work.

Director Norman Jewison made Carter's story into a semi-biographical blockbuster film. Washington worked closely with Carter to capture the boxer's transformation and redemption, ultimately winning a Golden Globe for the role.

"This man right here is love," Washington said while onstage with Carter at the 57th Golden Globe awards ceremony in January 2000. "He's all love. He lost about 7,300 days of his life, and he's love. He's all love."

However, the moviemakers were criticized for factual inaccuracies and glossing over many parts of Carter's life, including his violent temper and criminal past.

Giardello sued the film's producers depicting a racist fix in his win over Carter, who acknowledged Giardello deserved the victory.

Carter's weight and health faded in his waning months, but his advocacy for prisoners he considered wrongfully convicted never wavered. He wrote an opinion piece for the New York Daily News in February, strenuously fighting for the release of David McCallum, convicted of a 1985 kidnapping and murder. Carter briefly noted his health, saying he was "quite literally on my deathbed.

"Now I'm looking death straight in the eye," Carter wrote. "He's got me on the ropes, but I won't back down."