Former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Former boxing champ talks about his current work to help prisoners who have been falsely convicted.

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's story inspired a major movie, a song by Bob Dylan and a novel. The Paterson, NJ native survived a troubled adolescence by joining the U.S. Army, where he was a paratrooper and fought on the boxing team. He went on to become a pro middleweight—and a member of the NJ Boxing Hall of Fame—but was later falsely convicted of a triple homicide. Carter was eventually exonerated and has since become an activist and best-selling author. In his book, Eye of the Hurricane, he details the battles he's fought on behalf of the wrongly convicted.


Tavis: Dr. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a promising boxing phenom when he was falsely accused of murder in 1966 and, of course, sentenced. The story of his 20-plus year saga became the basis for the Denzel Washington hit film, “The Hurricane.”
The new book by Rubin Carter is called “Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom.” Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, good to have you on this program, sir.
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter: How you doing, Tavis?
Tavis: You doing all right, man?
Carter: I’m perfect.
Tavis: You’re as clean as the Board of Health.
Carter: Got to be.
Tavis: Got to be [laugh]. You have always been into fashion, I take it.
Carter: Yes, sir.
Tavis: Since you were young.
Carter: Well, yes, sir.
Tavis: Why so, how so?
Carter: Well, my father was a very fashionable person and I think I have the dressing from my father. He was a good dresser.
Tavis: So your father got you turned on to haberdashery.
Carter: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Who turned you on to boxing?
Carter: Oh, I started boxing when I was in the military way back in 1954.
Tavis: Right.
Carter: I started boxing then because it seemed I had a speech impediment. I couldn’t talk for the first 18 years of my life and people would laugh at me because I’d make all kinds of gyrations trying to get a word out. People would laugh at it because they’d think it was funny. All they would hear in reply would be my fist whistling through the air [laugh], so I became a prizefighter.
Tavis: What was the speech impediment about for 18 years?
Carter: I couldn’t talk. I stuttered very, very badly. I had a million words running through my mind and couldn’t get one of them past my lips without going through a lot of gyrations, you know. People thought that was funny. I didn’t know that it was hereditary. I didn’t know that my father stuttered and my grandfather stuttered. I didn’t know that at all.
Tavis: Everybody knows the story now of the Hurricane. As you look back on that now, how do you process that your story, of all the persons – and it seems to be happening every other day where somebody is getting released from prison because DNA is exonerating them.
Not happening fast enough and not happening in a far-reaching enough manner, but we see these stories almost every other day. Somebody getting out, having been in prison for years, having been falsely accused. But you get out and your story becomes a major motion picture. What do you make of that?
Carter: Well, it’s because I wouldn’t give up. 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, misinformed based upon perjury, based upon jailhouse snitches, based upon manufactured evidence, just because that misinformed jury found me guilty did not make me guilty. And because I was not guilty, I refused to act like a guilty person.
So when I walked into prison, I refused to wear their stripes. 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 and yet remained alive. So through those 20 years, I had to find a way to get out of those extraordinary situations and it took an extraordinary method in order to do it.
That’s what “The Eye of the Hurricane” is all about. It rips away all the illusions. It rips away all of the things that we are born into and take upon ourselves as ourselves. So that’s the reason why Denzel Washington, that’s the reason why I’ve been in the wrongful conviction business for the last 24 years, getting a lot of people out of prison.
You know, people go – well, let me say this. If you’re not a lawyer or haven’t gone to school to study the law, when it comes to the criminal justice system, you are brain dead because the criminal justice system is not about justice. It is about success.
Successful police officers are promoted. Successful prosecuting attorneys become judges. A successful judge goes to a higher court, even the Supreme Court. A successful judge, Tavis, in our system of jurisprudence, is a careful judge and not necessarily a wise one, but one who is rarely reversed on appeals. So that’s what it’s all about. That’s the reason why there are so many people who are in prison today.
In fact, when I leave here, I have an interview about Mumia Abu-Jamal who’s sitting on Death Row in eastern Pennsylvania for 30 years. I mean, a lot of us is like that. You know, we’re holdovers from those days 40 years ago when this country was full of segregation and Jim Crowism and all that kind of stuff. A lot of us went to prison and a lot of us are still in prison.
Tavis: There’s a book that came out last year that I was so honored to talk to the author about in a couple of places, I think, on TV and radio. Out of Ohio State, law professor named Michelle Alexander, a book called “The New Jim Crow.” You know the book.
Carter: Yeah.
Tavis: This powerful book, this book “The New Jim Crow,” talks about how the criminal justice system really does represent the new Jim Crow in America. Tell me, when you use this phrase, “the wrongful conviction business” that you are in, assess for me how that business is doing? Is it booming?
Carter: Yes. There’s more than 40-plus Innocence Projects operating in the United States alone.
Tavis: We all know Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project, yeah.
Carter: Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld.
Tavis: Peter Neufeld, exactly.
Carter: Oh, God, there’s so many. I don’t want to start naming them because I’ll miss some. The United States has more people in prison than any other country on the face of this earth, over 2.2 million people in prison. Therefore, those who are actually guilty, we need to get those who are not guilty out of this prison. We have a case right now in New York State, Tavis, David McCallum who’s been in prison for 24 years as a teenager.
Tavis: He’s in the book.
Carter: He’s in the book. We just found out last week from the prosecution that the DNA evidence that was tested did not belong to him, but rather belonged to someone else. Yet David McCallum is still sitting in prison. These are the type of people that we need to get out of prison.
I mean, you got Mumia Abu-Jamal, you got Leonard Peltier, you got a lot of people who went to prison during that time before DNA evidence and all that, doing that who are still sitting in prison today and we need to get those people out in order to make room for the, you know, guilty people to do it.
Tavis: It doesn’t mean, though – your point notwithstanding, Rubin – it doesn’t mean, though, that you necessarily had to commit your life to doing that. You’re not the first brother to get out of prison to say to the TV cameras assembled, “I want to spend the rest of my life helping others who are convicted falsely get out.” A bunch of Negroes say that when they get out, but you really have dedicated the rest of your whole life to this project. Why did you decide to do that?
Carter: Because being a wrongly convicted person, I realize how difficult it is to get people to listen to the wrongly convicted. You know, I had Muhammad Ali and Ellen Burstyn –
Tavis: – Bob Dylan.
Carter: Bob Dylan and Dyan Cannon and a host of other people to help me to get out of prison. Even with all this high-powered help, I just narrowly escaped through the eye of the needle. So when I got out, I said, well, okay, this is what I should do. I mean, I know the law. I’ve been immersed in the law for many, many years. So I’m gonna use that talent in order to help other people, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
Tavis: What are your feelings all these years later about the Garden State of New Jersey?
Carter: I don’t go there [laugh].
Tavis: You don’t even go there.
Carter: No [laugh].
Tavis: You won’t even fly over New Jersey.
Carter: I won’t even fly there [laugh].
Tavis: You won’t fly over New Jersey [laugh].
Carter: I won’t even fly over New Jersey. In fact, even when the geese from Canada go south for their migration, when they get to the Hudson River, they turn over on their backs because I don’t want to say why [laugh].
Tavis: But you ain’t hanging out in Jersey.
Carter: I don’t hang out in Jersey.
Tavis: The thing that I always think about is how do they navigate forward without being bitter?
Carter: With great difficulty because prison is bitterness. Prison is violence. Prison is hatred. Prison is humiliation. Prison is degradation. Prison is all of those things, and those things are imposed upon us. No matter who you are or what you’re in prison for, whether you’re innocent or guilty, it makes no difference. Everybody is affected by a prison.
Prison, Tavis, is the lowest level of human existence that a human being can exist on without being dead. That is what prison is, and that affects everybody. Not just prisoners, but guards, social workers, psychiatrists, warden.
Tavis: But we say we send people to prison to rehabilitate them.
Carter: Ah, that used to be the state policy of politicians and prison designers. It is no longer that. Prison now is purely reactive. You know, demonstrating the pain that ordinary citizens have upon the criminal behavior of other people. Prison today is out of sight, man.
Tavis: What do you make, then, of the fact that the prison industrial complex is one of the fastest growth businesses, one of the most booming businesses in this country, the private prison industrial complex?
Carter: Yes, because it takes $70 billion dollars a year to operate these structures. I mean, who can resist the smell of all that money? You know what I mean? That’s why the prison system has become privatized. I mean, it’s an awful thing. Rather than building schools and libraries and jobs for people to work and to be successful and to be respectful, we’re building prisons all over the place.
Tavis: Before I let you go, because we mentioned our friend Denzel Washington earlier in this conversation, we’re headed toward Oscar season and there are a whole bunch of folk right now who will go their graves – and I’m one of them – who will go to their graves thinking Denzel got robbed.
Carter: He did.
Tavis: Denzel got robbed, he got robbed [laugh].
Carter: He did.
Tavis: What do you make now – it’s been years now. It’s my first time seeing you on TV since that happened. What do you make of how that movie came out the blocks with all this hype on it? As we got closer to the Oscar voting, stories started coming out, stuff started getting twisted, and it got tricky and funky.
Carter: Oh, yeah. It did. I told Norman Jewison, the director of that – when I saw the end of that movie, I said, “Norman, you’ve left your Academy Award on the cutting room floor.” Because when the movie first came out, it was three hours long and, when they began showing it to private audiences, their feedback was the Canadians were not developed enough. So in order to develop these Canadians, they had to cut out other stuff.
For a good long while, it was a very strong Rubin movie, but then when they started cutting it in – some of the things that they put in there about the Canadians were wrong. It did not happen, and that’s the reason why you had all this flack and that’s why Denzel did not receive his Oscar. That’s a shame.
Tavis: He’s still a gold piece, though [laugh].
Carter: He’s still a good person.
Tavis: Probably the best thing out there. Anyway, the new book from Dr. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter is called “Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom.” I’m always honored to be in discourse with him. It’s a good text and, Rubin Carter, good to have you on this program, sir.
Carter: Tavis, thank you very much. And don’t forget. The forward is by Nelson Mandela.
Tavis: Nelson Mandela. You can’t forget that.
Carter: Can’t forget that.
Tavis: If you’re gonna get a forward to your book written by anybody, Mandela’s the one.
Carter: That’s the one.
Tavis: Only Rubin could pull that off. Anyway, that’s our show for tonight.
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Last modified: April 20, 2014 at 9:34 pm