HE WAS THE subject of an Oscar-nominated film, a Top 40 hit by Bob Dylan and, of course, his best-selling autobiography, the one with a foreword by Nelson Mandela. While these were scant wages for an aborted boxing career and 19 years in prison for murders he did not commit, that kind of international notoriety is nevertheless astonishing. No amount of fanfare could compensate for such lost time, but then—and let's be honest—his boxing career could never have produced so much fame.
Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who died last week at age 76, would have been long forgotten, a briefly fearsome if ultimately failed middleweight contender, if not for his conviction in a 1966 bar shoot-up that left three dead, all of them white. Until then he had demonstrated a certain ability in the ring, brutally lancing Emile Griffith but not getting over the hump in a bout with champion Joey Giardello. Far more reliable was his ability to affront. New Jersey cops did not appreciate his suggestion—joking, Carter said—of killing police, or particularly like the way he tooled around Paterson in his black Eldorado, with his name stenciled in silver above each headlight, a woman, often a white one, at his side.
By then Carter, with a record of 27-12-1 and on the downswing, made a better suspect than contender. He was violent, defiant and, as the courts were much later to observe, black. At the trial the testimony was iffy, the evidence cooked. Carter was down-and-out, plunged into a decades-long sentence, conducted in his own style of obstinacy.
That stubbornness ultimately attracted celebrity support, a slow boil of anger that eventually provoked justice, though only in starts. First there was Carter's 1974 book, The Sixteenth Round, telling his side of the story. Then Dylan's "Hurricane," the next year. The courts did not immediately react to the cause cél√®bre, but shortly after all-star concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Astrodome, they did order a second trial, in '76. The initial verdict was overturned when key witnesses recanted their testimony, but Carter was ultimately retried and convicted anew when a witness recanted his recantation.
The incredible persistence of what was clearly a racial injustice made him more famous, more a rallying call, more a victim. By the time he was released nine years later, a judge ruling that his prosecution had "been predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason," Carter was 48, oddly at peace, his once-shaved dome a head of curls. There was a 1999 movie, The Hurricane, in which Denzel Washington played a slightly whitewashed version of him; his work helping others fight for exoneration; and there was travel across the world—an extremely high-profile life. Whether that resulting fame was compensation enough for his trials, only he could truly say. But folk heroes don't come cheap.
Read William Nack's in-depth 1992 profile of Carter at SI.com/hurricane.
THEY SAID IT
"Steener is not going to miss it from the ladies' tee."
Blues coach, talking about winger Alexander Steen's triple-overtime game winner from point-blank range in St. Louis's series opener against the Blackhawks.