I didn’t wake up this morning intending to write about the death of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Truth be told, I didn’t wake up this morning “intending” to write about anything; more often than not, if you haven’t noticed, this column tends to be made up of whatever hovers into my field of consciousness at a given moment, tacitly and tenuously strung up in connection with some “greater truth” in the final paragraph. Sometimes, life presents me with a gift — see the rodeo piece from last weekend — but again, it’s usually a case of “Jeez, okay, I have to get up at 6 in the morning, and this needs to get done.”
I was reading about FreedomWorks — the Tea Party-funded radio and publicity network that keeps turd nuggets like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck in doughy, doughy business — on Politico when I saw the headline regarding Carter’s death from prostate cancer at the age of 76. It seemed a more promising subject for the week than 750 words of Republican fat jokes, so I clicked it to brush up.
In case, like me, you didn’t know anything about Rubin Carter before you saw the Denzel Washington vehicle “Hurricane,” here’s a quick rundown: Carter, a middleweight boxer on the down-slope of his career in the mid-’60s (with a record of 27-12, splitting wins and losses in his final six fights), was arrested in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966 for a triple murder at a local tavern. He and a friend were questioned, released then convicted by an all-white jury. After spending a number of years in prison, Carter was released, only to return to prison nine months later after a retrial, and would only be absolutely freed in 1985.
There are a lot of details surrounding the case and what may or may not have occurred that night: the two witnesses who would eventually identify Carter were actually attempting to commit a burglary nearby, and may have been offered leniency regarding their own crimes if they identified Carter and his friend as the shooters. The same two men later recanted their testimonies, then recanted the recantations in the eventual retrial. On the other hand, Carter’s white sedan — which matched a description of the getaway car on that night — was searched, and found to contain a shotgun and ammunition. So… there’s that.
No one — save Rubin and a handful of others — knows exactly what happened that night. Either way, he dedicated the remainder of his free life to advocating for wrongfully imprisoned individuals, and that’s not something anyone can take away from him, whether it was inspired by experience, guilt or a combination of both.
It seems disingenuous of me to co-opt Carter’s experience for my own benefit — albeit only $40 worth — after so many high-profile individuals did the same thing: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack and Joan Baez all contributed to a concert in Carter’s name upon his initial release, before proceeding to all but abandon him when he was re-imprisoned. Carter’s life, difficult enough by itself, has also been complicated by a number of media interpretations, most notably the Denzel Washington film “Hurricane” — a fine movie on the merits of its execution, but rife with inaccuracies and glossings-over — and the Bob Dylan song of the same name. I’m not going to compound the problem, even in a small way.
I’m more interested, rather, in why I even decided to tackle this bit of news in the first place. I became more interested in Carter’s life after I found out that he suffered from a speech impediment for much of his younger life — sources say that he “cured” it with the help of a speech therapist when he was a young adult, but it never, I don’t think, is ever truly eradicated. I’ve felt compelled to dig deeper into celebrities with a history of stutters or other speech impediments, from Bruce Willis to Mel Tillis to King George (he of Colin Firth fame), if only to reassure myself that there is a life and success to be had, not outside of, but in conjunction with, such impediments. As a result, I’ve tended to lump myself in with them, to assume membership in something resembling a community.
It’s a fallacy, I know, with regards to both the assumption and definition of “community.” A single common characteristic is not, after all, what unites a group of otherwise disparate individuals into a unified community; different economic, social and financial factors landed them all there, and it is their differences that ultimately characterize the very essence of the term.
Let me get back on the rails here: I cannot possibly relate to any other aspects of Rubin Carter’s life — not the alleged murder, the various imprisonments, the Army paratrooper training, the professional boxing, the endless hours of legal and historical study in the interest of his own freedom, and certainly not the founding of a nonprofit organization after his final release from prison. But I understand, I think, one of Carter’s struggles: his struggle to communicate with the world, and his eventual success in doing so.
It stands out as a small moment of clarity in what was otherwise a tumultuous, murky life, awash in half-truths and gray areas. But no one, ever, can take that small victory of Carter’s from him. Nor could they from me.