‘Hurricane’ Carter’s biggest fight

Former boxer, wrongly imprisoned for 19 years, battled for justice till the end

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
Bettmann / Corbis

Rubin sits like Buddha in a 10-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
That's the story of the Hurricane
But it won't be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he's done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

–– Bob Dylan, "Hurricane"

Boxing distills and illuminates the essence of an athlete. There's nowhere to hide. Boxers live and perform at the extremes. They provide us with answers about a given contest, but more important, they ask us fundamental questions about human narratives. What does this person really stand for? How far will he go to defend it? How close can he get to his breaking point and still find a way to keep going? It’s a fascinating trick: After the bell rings, you can get to the bottom of who he is faster than just about any other form of human expression available. But sometimes we realize we're not watching from a safe enough distance; someone like Rubin "Hurricane" Carter arrives, holding a mirror up to our false sense of security and shining a light that reveals a nation's watermark.

Punching your weight is one of boxing's most sensible rules. It's a handy one to abide by whether your battles lie in or out of a ring. Standing next to most of the middleweight prizefighters he terrorized during his tragically brief five-year professional career, "Hurricane," at only 5 feet 8 inches, was often the smaller man. 

If his deficit in size caused Carter any concern, his ruthless desire to end a fight as quickly as possible certainly never betrayed it. But when he stepped into the courtroom for his 1967 murder trial, his opponent was the justice system, an opponent every inch as tenacious as he was. His wrongful murder conviction would cost him 19 years of his life. 

Carter's professional career ended after his murder conviction. He never was able to win a world title, but he demolished two-time world champion Emile Griffith in the first round — the highlight of Carter's career. He fought for a title against Joey Giardello in 1964 but lost in a unanimous decision. He struggled for the next two years trying to remain a contender for the title. He fought 15 more times after Giardello, but Carter's career was floundering. He managed only one win in his last five fights. 

Then on June 17, 1966, around 2:30 in the morning, two black males stepped into the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, N.J., and opened fire. The fight of his life had just begun. After an all-white jury put him away, Carter was just one of 1,150 inmates at Rahway State, somewhere journalist Ralph Wiley once described as a place where "the world had dropped the sum of its sores into one of New Jersey’s gritty smokestacks, then chose not to watch as the results of the experiment filtered down into place."

"Hurricane" still had a lot of fight left in him, and this new battle transcended sport. In 1975, the same year Dylan released the namesake song, Carter released his autobiography "The Sixteenth Round." But Carter knew his chances against the opponent in front of him. In 1976 he asked his British lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, "What chance do you give me? You can see my verdict in their eyes. In America, nothing has really changed." And maybe it hadn't. The campaign to free Carter served only to inflame the system that had put him behind bars. The state made it a point of pride to allocate heavy resources to the prosecution to ensure Carter's conviction would never be overturned. It took another nine years of appeals and outside advocacy to have Carter freed from jail at the age of 48. 

Carter went on to become the executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) in Toronto and worked for the organization for 12 years. He offered his voice and himself as a living argument against the death penalty. In a hopelessly ironic 1996 incident, Carter was arrested after being mistaken for a black suspect some 25 years his junior who had sold drugs to an undercover Toronto police agent. Carter worked as a motivational speaker and received honorary degrees in recognition for his work with the AIDWYC. But after the AIDWYC refused to support Carter's protest of Susan MacLean — who was appointed to a judgeship despite having worked as a prosecutor on a case that saw a man serve 10 years in jail for rape and murder until DNA evidence exonerated him — he resigned from his position as executive director.  

Once Carter was free from the hopelessness of prison life, he devoted all his energies to standing up for some of those most in danger of giving up hope. Carter's own redemption would have been enough for a tragic, powerful American story. It wasn't enough for him. His fight was so much bigger. 

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