Storm of the century

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter has lived a life of novelistic proportions. Unfortunately, the only fiction was the prosecutor's case.

Published December 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's 1962 knockout punch against Florentino Fernandez came in the first round, sending Fernandez flying backward through the ropes at Madison Square Garden. In five years, the Hurricane ravaged 27 foes in 40 professional fights; eight of his 20 knockouts came in the first round. At his peak, he was poised to become the champion of the world.

In 1966, while making plans for a second fight for the middleweight championship, Carter and a friend, John Artis, were charged with a triple murder that occurred in a tavern in Paterson, N.J., Carter's hometown. Both had rock-solid alibis, two key witnesses happened to be petty thieves who later recanted their testimony, and the murder weapons were never found. But Carter and Artis spent most of the next two decades in prison.

Carter published his story, "The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472," in 1974 while he was an inmate at Rahway State Prison. He rode a brief wave of celebrity in the ensuing year, after Bob Dylan made him a folk hero with a song about his struggle for justice. But after a brief flirtation with freedom, a second trial sent "Hurricane" back to prison, where he remained for a second decade, until a federal judge gave Carter his freedom in 1985.

Now Carter's story is on the big screen in "The Hurricane," directed by Norman Jewison and starring Denzel Washington. Carter's ephemeral boxing career is evoked in vivid black and white sequences, and Washington -- whom Carter calls a friend -- turns in one of his finest performances. The heart of Carter's story is his resilience, his pride, and most of all, his will to transform himself, through his prison experience, into the gentler, happier, reflective man he has become.

In a recent phone conversation, Carter, who speaks in the cadences of the preachers who fill his family tree, remembered prison as "a concentration camp, the lowest form of existence you could have." Though prison left him blind in one eye, and despite spending more than a third of his life incarcerated -- including long stints in solitary confinement -- he said, "There is no bitterness. If I was bitter, that would mean they won."

Carter first learned to speak with his fists when, as a child, a debilitating stammer tended to either elicit ridicule or keep him silent. When provoked, he lashed out. Legend has it that he punched out a bulldog when he was 10 years old, according to a childhood friend quoted in James Hirsch's new book, "Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter." At 11, Carter was sent to the State Home for Boys after he attacked a white man with broken glass and stole his watch. Carter has claimed that the man was intent on molesting one of his friends.

When he was old enough, he ran away from the home to join the Army, in 1954. As he recounted in "The Sixteenth Round," he served in a segregated corps, and when it traveled by bus from Fort Jackson, S.C., white soldiers went into restaurants for food and drink "while blacks stayed on the buses and ate cold bologna sandwiches." It wasn't the last time the shadow of racism would cross Carter's path.

By the time he learned to contain his fury in a boxing ring, in Germany, Hurricane Carter's fists spoke volumes. His opponents were pummeled swiftly and mercilessly. He won two European light-welterweight championships, and during the same period enrolled in a Dale Carnegie speech program, and began studying Islam. It was the beginning of two alternating threads -- fighting and learning -- that would run through much of Carter's career and later confinement.

In 1956, Carter was ready to turn pro: "I loved prize fighting, but I wasn't about to prolong my Army career in order to compete in nothing," he writes. "Shucks! I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to America and find Ray Charles! Because I had missed him the first time around."

But upon returning to Paterson, he was picked up by police and compelled to serve out the remaining 10 months of his sentence at the state home. Carter writes that, when he was released, he confronted urban decay: "Many of the most handsome buildings I had known had been gutted and wantonly abandoned . . . Homes I remembered as neat and comfortable were now horrifying firetraps, forsaken by their original owners and allowed to fall into decay so that local slumlords could gobble them up cheaply."

There was a simmering anger in Carter. When he began boxing professionally as a middleweight (fighters under 160 pounds) in 1961, he went on a four-fight winning streak, including two KOs. (Denzel Washington reportedly had to learn to throw 80 punches a minute to approximate the Hurricane's gale-force fists.)

At first he lived in Trenton, where he sparred with Sonny Liston (the heavyweight champion from 1962 to 1964), despite the fact that Carter was five inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter. According to Hirsch, Carter took such a beating one day that blood from both ears soaked through his headgear. He left Trenton that night.

Carter was confident, but embittered by the role he believed race had played in his run-ins with the authorities. Now that he was successful, he was in a position to speak out. In an interview with a Saturday Evening Post reporter in 1964, he railed against the police occupations of black neighborhoods that had occurred in the summer. But in the subsequent article, his comments were boiled down to an exhortation for blacks to defend themselves, in the language of Malcolm X, "by any means necessary." Worse, the story quoted a friend of Carter's as saying that the boxer had responded to riots in Harlem with a suggestion that they "get guns and go up there and get us some of those police. I know I can get four or five before they get me. How many can you get?" (The movie depicts this comment as part of an off-the-record conversation, delivered with a potent mix of menace and humor.)

At the time, Carter cut an imposing figure, as Washington conveys in the new film, with his shaved head (years before Michael Jordan made it wholesome) and Vandyke beard. His juvenile record and apparent advocacy of violence, not to mention a flashy lifestyle worthy of one of today's West Coast rappers, did little to endear Carter to the white power structure of Paterson, N.J., in those racially charged times. One night in the summer of 1966, three whites were gunned down in the Lafayette Grill by two black men who fled in a white car. The act was assumed by many to have been racially motivated. Attention turned to Carter, who had been driving his white Dodge that night.

However, Carter had been out at another club, the Nite Spot, which he left with a young man named John Artis, who needed a ride home. The two were picked up by police, but at the time, witnesses didn't identify them as the killers. Months later, Paterson officials arrested Carter and Artis again, promising a "mystery witness" -- a petty thief named Alfred Bello, who was acting as a lookout for a robbery in progress near the tavern at the time of the shootings. Bello had changed his story.

Although there was no evidence linking them to the murders; no weapon had been found; the bar had not been dusted for fingerprints; the suspects' hands had not been tested for traces of gunpowder; and there was no motive, an all-white jury convicted Carter and Artis, basing their decision largely on the testimony of two felons who'd received monetary compensation and reduced sentences. The Hurricane was given three life terms, one for each of his alleged victims.

Carter was sent to Trenton State Prison wearing a $5,000 diamond ring and a gold watch, and his refusal to accept prison clothing landed him in "the hole" -- jewelry, shark-skin suit, black patent-leather shoes and all. In 1970 he transferred to Rahway, a prison "easily identifiable by the . . . cursed stench of pigeon shit polluting the air," he says in the book he wrote within its walls a few years later. He cut himself off from his wife during his first prison term, when his children barely knew him, initially to protect them from heartbreak. But he and his family remain estranged to this day.

In 1974, a copy of his autobiography was sent to Bob Dylan, who took Carter's plight to heart, visiting him in jail and writing an anthem on his behalf. Dylan played "Hurricane" on every stop of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour the next year. The Hurricane was a celebrity cause.

Also in 1974, the two key witnesses in Carter's conviction -- Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley -- recanted their testimony. The New York Times published a front-page article that depicted his prosecution as the work of racist bullies in the Passaic County prosecutor's office. And in March 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Carter and Artis, and they were freed on bail.

But months later, at a second trial, Bello again reversed his testimony. After a devastatingly brief six months of freedom, Carter and Artis were sent back to prison. Though he had carefully studied the law for years, including every detail of his own case, after his second defeat Carter says he gave away his law books. He began to study literature instead, reading "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl and Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha."

Around the same time, Carter says he experienced a vision one sweltering summer day while walking in the yard. After crouching down to catch his breath, he saw a pinprick of light through the cement and brick wall of the old prison. Then the hole grew large. Suddenly, Carter says, he briefly "saw through the prison wall, saw the people on the sidewalks, the cars on the street." He resolved to "train my spirit to find that hole in the wall."

In 1982 the state Supreme Court affirmed the convictions with a 4-3 vote. But Carter's reaction exemplified his newly serene nature; in a note to the judges who voted in the minority, he said, "The ancient philosopher Diogenes spent his whole life searching for one honest man. I have found three. Thank you."

Jewison's film is framed by the story of a group of
Canadians -- Lisa Peters, Terry Swinton and Sam Chaiton, leaders of an entrepreneurial commune -- who eventually helped Carter gain freedom a decade later by devoting countless hours, resources and nearly expert analysis to his legal team. As it happened, his out-of-print autobiography -- Carter now calls it his "SOS" -- had fallen into the hands of 15-year-old Lesra Martin, whom the Canadians had adopted from his impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood. They educated him and taught him to read. Carter's "Sixteenth Round" was Martin's first book -- he then shared Carter's tale with his adopted family and the rest of the story will soon be playing in cineplexes across the land. (Jewison's film is based largely on Chaiton and Swinton's book, "Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Untold Story of the Freeing of Rubin'Hurricane' Carter.")

When the film was in pre-production, Carter and Washington were having dinner one night. Carter recalls that he found himself expecting the actor to ask him, "What was it like to be in prison all that time?" He never did. But at one point during the meal, Carter says he noticed Washington staring at himself in a mirror in the restaurant's foyer; after that, when Washington talked to him, Carter saw the actor had absorbed his manner and intensity completely. "I realized that he was giving me back to me. That was when I saw how beautiful and extraordinary this was." Carter calls the film "a miracle."

In a federal appeal in 1985, Judge H. Lee Sarokin said Carter's earlier trials had been "based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure." Carter was free at last. (Artis had been released a few years earlier.) Carter and the others had become so close that he went to live with them at the commune upon his release. He has remained in Canada ever since. "America looks very different to those of us who don't live in it," he told me.

Now 62, Carter fights for prisoners who he believes are reliving his own nightmarish past, as director of the Toronto-based Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted, which has several successful DNA-based appeals to its credit. Carter now finds boxing "barbaric," though he eagerly accepted an honorary championship title belt from the World Boxing Council in 1993.

In making justice his fight, he has found a fulfilling mission. While he has rejected the sport that once defined him, the bespectacled Carter knows it is part of his legend. He disliked his nickname when he first heard it, almost 40 years ago, but he now embraces it. Immortalized in Dylan's song as the man who "coulda been the champion of the world," Carter says, "The Hurricane lives on."

By Frank Houston

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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