Hurricane Carter, Champion of the World

Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who spent 19 years in a United States prison for a triple murder he did not commit, died of prostate cancer on Easter Sunday at his home in Toronto. He was 76. The professional boxer from New Jersey, whose freedom was secured by a small group of dedicated Canadians, moved to Canada shortly after his release, remarried briefly and became a renowned speaker, author and advocate for the wrongfully convicted. A 1975 song by Bob Dylan (see below) told the story of his fight for justice, even as Hurricane served time in prison. A movie about his life, Hurricane, was released in 1999, starring Denzel Washington. Nelson Mandela, another former boxer, said that his 2000 meeting with Carter “made my day.” Fighting for the freedom of wrongfully convicted prisoners right to the end, Carter wrote: “If I find a heaven after this life, I’ll be quite surprised. To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that would be heaven enough for us all.” Cheryl Hawkes, a Toronto writer who lived down the street from Hurricane Carter for several years, offers this reminiscence.

April 22, 2014

 I still remember the day my youngest son – and every other ten-year-old boy in the neighbourhood – figured out that Hurricane Carter lived just down the street. It was around the time of the release of the movie Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, and directed by Canadian Norman Jewison. The discovery that the movie’s subject was living among us was news to me and an explosive discovery among the pre-teen crowd. None of these young boys quite knew what to do with this information.

The large detached home in our west end Toronto neighbourhood suddenly took on a mystique, the comings and goings of its owner reported on almost daily, the annual door-to-door sales pitch for raffle tickets for the school fair now involving all the planning of a complex military mission. Ring the doorbell? Bother the great man? Would Denzel Washington come to the door? Or just an older guy wearing a giant hat? My son and his friends were in awe – but did not want to fawn.

In retrospect, I don’t know why all of us didn’t twig earlier. From the sidewalk walking south along our street, it was easy to see the black-and-white boxing photo hanging on the living room wall, an action photo of Carter in the ring in his heyday, his 1962 69-second knockout of Florentino Fernandez in Madison Square Garden. Who else would hang a boxing photograph on his living room wall?

carter (discard after use)Finally, my 10-year-old boy climbed the stairs and stood on Hurricane’s porch, ringing the doorbell, a copy of Carter’s memoir, The 16th Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, in hand. The former boxer with the chequered past made the fourth grader with the book feel completely welcome.

That older guy in his signature wide-brimmed hat could also be seen driving his dark blue Mercedes sedan around the neighbourhood. He sat bolt upright in the driver’s seat – exuding the physical discipline of a former boxer, the proud posture of a man who had to fight to reclaim his freedom or perhaps simply his own shortish stature, just barely over 5’8”. The car was always gleaming and freshly washed and waxed.

On the street, we adults greeted him as Rubin, or Mr. Carter, never Hurricane. Canadians to the bone, we did not want to presume. We were not of his world – and yet, we were. We had a million questions – yet understood that, here, at his home, we were obliged to honour his privacy.

My late husband, then a broadcaster with his own famous face, often crossed paths with Rubin, walking up to the subway. The first time, the jolt of recognition on both men’s faces was almost comical, as they nodded silently and respectfully to one another and carried on. “Everyone has to be somewhere,” my husband would say cheerfully to his own shocked fans. Rubin Carter got the same consideration.

He seemed incapable of small talk anyway. The two short conversations I had with him, as our paths crossed accidentally on the way up the street, were almost like Buddhist teachings, his thoughts spun into philosophical musings, riddled with metaphor. He was obviously a man who had given a lot of thought to how we treat one another in this world and to the deadly power of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was a tremendous strength and force of personality behind all the inner peace he exuded. It had not been an easy journey for him, and he defended his tranquility fiercely.

Yet when the 10-year-old boys invited him to their elementary school to give an inspirational talk, Carter cheerfully agreed. “He was a lovely, lovely man,” my son recalls today. “Tremendously kind, compassionate, really, really intelligent.”

The house itself was next door to a somewhat seedy property, which in turn housed an auto body shop – a sharp contrast to Carter’s home and an anomaly on our residential street of stately 100-year-old homes. Hurricane’s own backyard was reputed to be a complete oasis, an otherworldly retreat. He explained to his next-door neighbour that his years in prison had robbed him of beauty and green space, the smell of flowers, the sound of a garden fountain, the tranquility and peace of a well-tended piece of nature. And so he had created that in the garden of his home in downtown Toronto, built the walls high and retreated to it regularly.

At Christmas, he had the biggest light display of anyone on the street – a professional job that blanketed the front of his home in white light. He was clearly making up for lost Christmas cheer in years gone by – a man bent on celebrating and savouring a resurrection.

Years ago, a mysterious fire inside the Carter home resulted in a move – as Hurricane pulled up stakes and shifted over to a new neighbourhood west of here. Around the same time, he parted ways with the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, stepping down as its executive director after a fundamental disagreement with its board of directors. I ran into him on Bloor Street a couple of times after that. My son recalls seeing him in a store in his new neighbourhood – he was 16 by then – and being amazed that his hero remembered the 10-year-old with the book clutched in his hand, years earlier at his front door.

We missed our famous neighbour with the compelling personal story. And we were saddened to hear of his battle with cancer – a fight he was apparently losing. His last wishes were for no funeral, just cremation. Hopefully his friends will organize some kind of alternative sendoff – where people can gather to tell their stories. Because, unlike so many of us, Hurricane Carter was a completely unique individual, an irreplaceable figure fighting for the voice of the wrongfully convicted.

My son is 24 years old now. And when he moved out on his own, he took just a few books – the signed copy of The 16th Round among them. The book, he says, left a lasting impression. For the young man from a relatively privileged middle-class home, Hurricane Carter’s message still resonated – life can knock you down, knock you down hard. You have to get up and keep fighting, for yourself and for others.

Copyright 2014 Cheryl Hawkes


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