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Remembering Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, prizefighter who fought for his and others’ freedom

April 21, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
In the early 1960s Rubin Carter earned the nickname "Hurricane" as a middleweight boxer who knocked out 19 opponents. But in 1967 an all-white jury convicted him of a triple murder. A symbol of racial injustice who inspired a Bob Dylan song and a Hollywood movie, Carter was freed after almost two decades in prison and became an activist. Jeffrey Brown talks to Selwyn Raab of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering a fighter whose battle for justice became his touchstone.

And back to Jeff for that.

(BELL RINGING)

MAN: There’s round two.

JEFFREY BROWN: Middleweight prizefighter Rubin Carter knocked out 19 opponents in the early 1960s, earning the nickname Hurricane.

But his boxing career came to an abrupt end in 1967, when an all-white jury in New Jersey convicted him of a triple murder in a Paterson bar.  Nineteen years after his imprisonment, a federal judge dismissed the charges and freed Carter, citing a racist prosecution.

RUBIN CARTER: They sentenced me to a life of living death, and there was no other way to describe the nature of a prison. Prison destroys everything that is valuable in a human being. It destroys family. It destroyed mine. It destroys one’s dignity.

JEFFREY BROWN: While in prison, Carter became a symbol of racial injustice, his story made famous by a 1975 Bob Dylan song.

BOB DYLAN, Musician (singing): Here comes the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.

DENZEL WASHINGTON, Actor: We don’t even know what enemies we have out there in the state. We got to take it out of New Jersey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And his fight for freedom was introduced to a new generation by the 1999 film “The Hurricane,” starring Denzel Washington as Carter.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: You said it yourself. You said, if we take the new evidence before the federal judge, he’s got to look at it before he throws it out, right? I believe that, once he looks at it, he will have seen the truth. Having seen the truth, he can’t turn his back on me.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his later years, Carter founded an organization, Innocence International, to help prisoners it considered wrongly convicted.

He wrote a recent op-ed in The New York Daily News on behalf of one such prisoner.

Of his own life, he wrote there: “If I find a heaven after this life, I will be quite surprised. In my own years on this planet, though, I lived in hell for the first 49 years, and have been in heaven for the past 28 years.”

Rubin Carter died from prostate cancer at his home in Toronto. He was 76 years old.

Selwyn Raab was an investigative reporter for The New York Times who covered Rubin Carter for 30 years. His reporting in the 1970s helped eventually prove Carter’s innocence.

Well, thanks for joining me.

Take us back to that moment first in the 1960s. How did this become such a major cause that engaged so many people?

SELWYN RAAB, The New York Times: The importance of Rubin Carter’s case is that it spotlighted how extensive racial prejudice was in the criminal justice system.

And it occurred at a time when there was widespread civil unrest in — throughout the nation. And this case didn’t occur in the bastions of the South, where there were all this anti-integration fights. It occurred presumably and supposedly in the liberal part of the North, in New Jersey, just a short hop over the George Washington Bridge and a suburb of New York.

So that attracted a lot of attention. Furthermore, Carter, because of his celebrity as a well-known boxer who almost won the middleweight championship, he attracted a lot of attention, the attention from other boxers like Muhammad Ali, a lot of show business people like Bob Dylan. So you just couldn’t bury this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: You met him back then. Tell us a little about him during that time and what happened when he was convicted.

SELWYN RAAB: Well, even though he had this reputation of being a ferocious boxer and a radical militant, he was a very soft-spoken, well-thought, well-articulated, charismatic character.

And there was never a sign of bitterness out of him, even though all of the trouble that he had gone through and the idea that he had been sentenced to life imprisonment — very well-spoken, very well-read, self-educated, somebody who knew what he wanted to do and how to accomplish it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he set his own terms in prison, didn’t he, the way he served his time?

SELWYN RAAB: Yes, the first thing he said to me was, “They can imprison my body, but they will never imprison my mind.”

And he felt, if he had ever agreed or comport — and comported with the institutional regulations, that would be evidence of his guilt. So what he did was, he stayed by himself most of the time, reading and thinking. And at the same time, he would not eat in the prison lunchrooms.

He had small band of supporters who brought him in canned food and soup, and he had an electric coil. And he would never comply. They asked him to teach boxing. They asked him to participate in boxing matches. And to that — to him, that would have been an indication that he was guilty. And so he never did that. He was always his own man.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are a lot of complications to this story that we can’t walk all through the details.

But just remind us. The federal judge, when he threw this out, what was he saying, in essence, that had happened in the prosecution?

SELWYN RAAB: Well, the federal judge said, in effect, that Rubin Carter and his co-defendant, John Artis, the forgotten man in this story, had been framed not once, but twice.

At both trials, at the two trials that he underwent, the first trial there was a lily-white jury, and there was racial prejudice in there, and it was perjury by the two main witnesses against Carter and Artis.

At the second trial, they introduced a racial motive without any evidence. And they also withheld again important evidence that would have cleared Carter and Artis about the main witness against them. So both times, he was confronted by this kind of situation where prosecutors would go to almost any length to convict him.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, very briefly, we mentioned that right up to the end, he had founded an organization. So he stayed with this issue until the end.

SELWYN RAAB: Yes, he never forgot the other people who were in prison.

So that was really this calling for the rest of his life after he got out of prison. And he dedicated himself to that. So it is another example of how he was forthright and he wasn’t totally selfish. And he was always worried, always talking about the other inmates, who he knew there were many of him who had been convicted wrongly.

Now, of course, there are plenty of people who say they have been railroaded. Carter knew about that, but he made sure that he wasn’t going to be railroaded.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Selwyn Raab on the life of Rubin Carter, thanks so much.

SELWYN RAAB: My pleasure.

Note: Due to web restrictions, this video has been edited.