When a hurricane blows over

When a hurricane blows over

When a hurricane blows over
Before I knew much about Rubin Carter the fighter, I knew about Carter’s cause.

The year was 1974, and I had just joined Ebony magazine as an assistant editor responsible for sports.

The big news at the magazine was that one of the senior editors, Hans Massaquoi, had gotten an exclusive interview with Carter, whose boxing career had been cut short when he was convicted of fatally shooting two men and a woman in a Paterson tavern in 1966.

Carter, who died last Sunday at 76, steadfastly maintained his innocence but spent 19 years in prison before the charges against him were dismissed on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

I was a high school junior when the shooting occurred, and frankly, the only boxer on the planet who mattered to me was Muhammad Ali.

In fact, the only reason I knew anything about Carter was that Ali had attended a pretrial hearing in support of Carter.

Massaquoi was bullish on Carter’s innocence, and even as he urged me to take a closer look at the case, as a story about justice denied, I simply saw it as the riveting story of a boxer who said he had been wrongly accused.

In retrospect, Carter and Massaquoi were on the cutting edge of identifying a mass incarceration movement that, over the next four decades, ravaged the African-American population.
After learning of Carter’s death, I reread Massaquoi’s 1974 article and was struck by much of what Carter said, about individuality and about preserving one’s dignity when confronted by those trying to take it away. 

Asked about the effectiveness of prisons, Carter said: “Throwing people in jail and painting the windows black is not a solution. It is the problem.”

While he was incarcerated, Carter refused to perform any type of prison work. He refused to wear prison clothing. He refused to submit to the normal prison routine.

“You have to determine which way you allow these people to treat you,” Carter said.

He refused to allow prison to define him. “That would be an admission of guilt,” said Carter, who even refused to accept privileges like time in the prison yard.

The article was published during the tipping point of an explosion of black athletes in college and professional basketball and football. This was the beginning of an era of skyrocketing salaries, global visibility and, not coincidentally, weakening consciousness and conviction.

What Hurricane Carter accomplished during the next 40 years outside the ring was more important than anything he accomplished as an athlete.

He wrote two autobiographies, was the inspiration behind a Bob Dylan song and was the subject of a movie. He became a symbol of racial injustice and the penal system. (The victims of the 1966 murders were white.)

Carter founded a nonprofit organisation, Innocence International, to work to free prisoners it considered wrongly convicted.
Carter led a fascinating life, one that, in many ways, can be used as a lesson to young athletes so consumed with attaining wealth and glory that they lose sight of forging an enduring legacy. 

Carter offers a reminder that one’s deeds on the court or on the field will be quickly forgotten; contributions to society resonate across decades.

Carter’s name endures not because he had a great left hook but because of the principles he represented until the day he died. 

Carter, placed in the correctional system at 11, spent much of his youth behind bars. 

But he maintained that he was always free. 

As he told The New York Times in a 1977 interview, “they can incarcerate my body but never my mind.”

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