The US boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter has died aged 76. He was known largely for things he didn’t do rather than what he did. He is probably most famous as the subject of a Bob Dylan song.
His story mixes the very ordinary with the extraordinary. He was born in 1937 and grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, which had expanded producing aircraft engines during the war. Rubin was black, so there was nothing out of the ordinary about his regular run-ins with the police.
In the mid 1960s he was on the way up as a champion middleweight boxer, just as black anger exploded across the country in riots and the call for black power. He was a contender for the middleweight world championship. As he got successful a friend quoted him joking about shooting police in a riot.
As a cocky black man, there was nothing out of the ordinary about his being dragged to the police station after a triple murder in a bar in his hometown.
At first he was brought in because he drove a white car as eyewitnesses said the killers had. Witnesses failed to identify him.
He was convicted in 1966 with the friend he had been driving with after two witnesses, who had been carrying out a burglary nearby, changed their statements to say that he was the killer. It took him 19 years to clear his name. This was despite the fact that the two burglars later retracted their identification.
Rubin described prison as a “life of living death”. He attempted to appeal the conviction but judge Samuel Larner said, “The ring of truth is totally absent in the recantations of both witnesses”.
This was partly as they had lied in the original trial to conceal the fact that they had done a deal with the police for their testimony.
It was the exposure of the deal that got the case retried. Rubin and his friend were convicted again, despite the fact that one of the original witnesses now repeated his original 1967 evidence.
This may sound extraordinary, but comes to seem more ordinary every time you remember the victims and the witnesses were white while Rubin was black.
When the case was finally thrown out in 1985 the judge said the conviction was “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”
Many people still whine that he was not as virtuous an angel as you might think from listening to Dylan. Rubin was caught up in petty crime in his youth, and had been convicted of theft. But what really angered them was the rage in the song (see below).
It doesn’t matter that Rubin had a criminal record. He was still fitted up by a racist system.
Rubin said of his life, “There is no bitterness. If I was bitter, that would mean they won.” But he also didn’t sit back and accept what had happened.
What is remarkable is that once he got out he went on fighting for the rights of other wrongly imprisoned people. He was executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.
All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance
The trial was a pig-circus he never had a chance
The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums
To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum
Lyrics from Hurricane, Bob Dylan’s song about Rubin Carter’s case