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Hurricane found heaven in his hell

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Rubin "Hurricane" Carter

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter

Three years ago Sports Illustrated published a list of what they considered to be the best sports songs of all time. Unaccountably omitting 'Snooker loopy nuts are we' and Nottingham Forest's version of 'He's got the whole world in his hands', they plumped for 'Who Killed Davey Moore' by Bob Dylan as number one.

Whether that's the right choice, there's no doubt that in 1975 Dylan did write the best song ever written about a sportsman, the one that begins, "Pistol shots ring out in the bar-room night, enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall, she sees the bartender in a pool of blood, cries out my God they killed them all."

'Hurricane' is one of the very best songs Dylan ever wrote, an extraordinary achievement in the way it lays out the story of the titular character, Rubin Carter, the former world middleweight title contender from New Jersey who in 1967 was convicted of a multiple murder he didn't commit, spent 18 years in prison before the conviction was overturned, and who died last week aged 76.

The Carter case, and the racial prejudice at the heart of it, is a reminder that America was only a few decades down the road from the era when the lynching of blacks was carried out with impunity. It took place in the shadow of the Civil Rights era and Dylan's intervention ensured that it came to be seen as symptomatic of a justice system still weighted against African-Americans.

Judge H Lee Sarokin, who threw out the conviction, acknowledged this with his statement that the verdict was "predicated on racism rather than reason and on concealment rather than disclosure."

Carter had been a world-class boxer, his record included a first-round knockout victory over all-time great Emile Griffith and a points win over Jimmy Ellis, later to become WBA world heavyweight champion after that association disgracefully stripped Muhammad Ali of his title for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. He even had a shot at the world title in 1964 but lost a close points decision to an outstanding champion, Joey Giardello.

It is occasionally pointed out that Rubin Carter was no angel. Well, Carter had done time as a young man, as indeed had Joey Giardello and sundry other professional boxers of the era. But he wasn't accused of being an angel, he was accused of murder and a dispassionate look at the evidence against him, uncoloured by racial bias, reveals its flimsy nature.

Freed, he fought for the rights of others wrongfully convicted. He served 12 years as executive director of the Canadian organisation Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, received two honorary degrees for his work with the Innocence Project and set up his own organisation Innocence International.

Just two months ago, in the knowledge that he was dying of cancer, the Hurricane wrote a letter to the New York Daily News pleading for a full review of the case of David McCallum, convicted in 1985 at the age 16 of a murder in New York solely on the basis of a recanted confession. "To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all," wrote the man who said that he had, "lived in hell for the first 49 years and have been in heaven for the past 28 years."

Carter, wrote the sportswriter Dave Zirin in his obituary, "knew he had left an untold number of sisters and brothers behind. He had lived the racism of the criminal justice system, and he had lived among the poor and the mentally ill behind bars. Following his release he was determined to be their advocate. For him heaven was doing this kind of work, and struggle was the secret of joy."

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He might not have been an angel but the Hurricane ended up doing a tremendous amount of good for people sorely in need of help. I think that made him a better man than most of us.


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