The closest that I ever got to Rubin Carter who died in the early hours of Easter Sunday was through the automatically generated telephone answering mechanism of his home in Canada.
The phone would ring several times before reverting to the rich, baritone voice of an African-American male. It simply reminded the caller that if they were sure that they had reached their intended destination, then “you know what to do.”
I had not the foggiest idea of what password or other ritual Carter had mandated that callers follow and never did find out.
Back in the early 2000s when I was completing my research on Dick Tiger, the Nigerian world middleweight champion who had fought Carter in a memorable contest in May of 1965, I had obtained Carter’s ‘super secret’ contact number from a son of one of Carter’s other contemporaries, the light heavyweight fighter Frankie DePaula.
But Carter was always guarded and extremely selective about the people with whom he conducted private conversations. Of course, such an attitude may only be expected from a man who had spent close to twenty years of his life in prison for a crime which the record shows he should not have been convicted.
It is certainly de rigueur among those inhabiting a world of fame, or, in Carter’s case from certain stridently held perspectives, one of infamy.
I already had an idea, based on what I had read about him and from speaking to people who had known him, that Carter would not be receptive to conducting an interview. Still, I held out the hope that he might say something for the record - even if it was to rail against the sport of boxing for its exploitation of young black men.
These series of non-encounters nonetheless enlightened me on certain aspects of Carter’s persona. He was a difficult man to get to know; often posing riddles and barriers not only to strangers, but to those with whom he was acquainted and even to those with whom he had a more intimate association.
Plainly speaking, he was an enigma.
The aspect of Rubin Carter which most interested me was that of his career as a boxer. This remains the case despite the overshadowing circumstance of his been made into a cause celebre for the perennial problem of racial injustice and the malfunctioning of the American criminal justice system.
In 1966, Carter, along with a friend John Artis, was arrested for the brutal slaying of three people in a New Jersey bar and grill. The police claimed that both men, at the instigation of Carter had shot the victims as an act of racial revenge. Carter, on the other hand, contended that he had been arrested by a racially prejudiced law enforcement regime and was convicted by an equally bigoted jury.
It took almost two complete decades for his conviction to be quashed. In the interim period, a campaign was launched in the middle part of the 1970s to free Carter. The ‘Rubin Carter Defense Campaign Committee’ consisted of many figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports and the civil rights movement. ‘Hurricane’, a barnstorming folk-rock song, composed and performed by Bob Dylan became the anthem for the cause.
When Carter was released for the second and final time, he pointedly made the decision to reside in Canada rather than in the United States. This was a serious statement in its self, but also was one which on reflection may have brought a wry smile to students of American civil rights history.
While the perception is that the American South was the regional practioner par excellence in the meting out of racial oppression, the late Malcolm X in his ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ speech humorously cautioned against holding such a belief. “Stop talking about the South,” he intoned, “As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you’re South.”
Carter’s initial connection with Canada was through a group of commune-living hippies with whom he communicated during his time in jail, but even after he broke with them, he made Toronto his permanent place of residence and eventually became a Canadian citizen.
He became an advocate for a non-governmental organisation which promoted the rights of those seeking to overturn wrongful convictions. Carter, after all, had been the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.
On that point, however, there is dissent.
There are those who believe that Carter, a vocal critic of racism in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey had taken the law into his hands in June of 1966 by shooting three local whites in cold blood as a revenge for an incident earlier that evening in which a black bartender, the step-father of a friend of Carter’s was murdered by a white man. They point to the fact that Carter was convicted in a second trial and that his conviction was only nullified on a point of technicality.
These doubts were deployed in a campaign mounted by a Hollywood public relations firm against the film ‘Hurricane’ in which Carter is powerfully depicted by Denzel Washington. It likely cost Washington the coveted Oscar for best leading actor in 2000.
But Carter’s legions of supporters have not wavered. And as his last autobiography, Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom showed, he remained steadfast in his conviction that he was a wronged man, but a man who nonetheless refused to be shackled by hatred or bitterness.
Bitterness and hatred were central themes of his earlier life. He had grown up in deprived circumstances and felt constricted not only by this but also by society’s attitude towards members of his race. His path was atypical of that of the juvenile delinquent.
Where redemption may have come via the potentially positive conditioning values of a military environment, his career in the army came to an end with a dishonourable discharge.
Boxing presented an opportunity to improve his circumstances and he took up the sport while serving in the military in West Germany. It might sound clichéd to aver that he fought with a rage –hence the nom de guerre, ‘Hurricane’; but this was precisely the case. It was however, a controlled and calculated rage.
Carter was intelligent enough to realise that the application of unrestrained and untutored aggression by a fighter would be suicidal in the boxing ring. His ring style necessarily involved a litany of techniques which demonstrated his adeptness at footwork, posturing feints, measuring his opponent with a ramrod left jab and a swiftly delivered assortment of powerful hooks and wrecking ball right crosses.
Fight films capture him at his ruthless best in pummelling the great welterweight fighter, Emile Griffith en route to a first round stoppage. In 1962, he memorably despatched the middleweight Florentino Fernandez with a devastating combination which sent the Cuban tumbling through the ropes. That bout also ended before the first round had been completed.
But he could also be tamed. Harry Scott, a Liverpool-based fighter scored a points decision over him as did several other fighters. His one challenge for the middleweight title was frustrated by the masterful boxing technique of Joey Giardello.
And of course there was Dick Tiger, the subject of my first book.
From Tiger, Carter would privately admit, he received the biggest beating of his life “inside or outside of the ring.” Over the course of time, it has become apparent to me that this bout irreparably wounded a part of Carter’s psyche, much to the extent that I understand why I stood little chance of been given the opportunity to interview him.
Carter had long being fascinated by the stocky African fighter who after relocating to New York in the late 1950s became a regular performer on the nationally televised boxing fights broadcast to Americans on Friday evenings.
At a time when the middleweight division was replete with tough competitors, the tenacious and skilful Tiger appears to have offered the yet-to-turn professional Carter a mental challenge of sorts.
To him, Dick Tiger was seemingly the embodiment of an aura of toughness which the self-consciously tough-as-nails Carter sought to emulate.
He admitted to having dreamed about fighting Tiger while incarcerated prior to the start of his professional career. But while Carter’s conscious and unconscious excursions into the realm of imagined contests had often predicted a knockout victory over a future adversary, he could only admit to carving out a points’ decision over Tiger.
Such could be interpreted as a manifestation of his doubts on being able to cope with Tiger and if that was the case, they were an accurate portent of his eventual doom. The way Victor Zimet, an accomplished American trainer told me, it was as if Tiger had put Carter on his knees and spanked him like a father would an errant child.
All but one of Carter’s losses were on points. He was outfoxed by Joey Giardello; not dominated. True, he was stopped by the capable Jose ‘Monon’ Gonzalez but Carter had been well ahead on points when the bout was ended due to a deep cut which had materialised over his right eye.
Dick Tiger did more. He inflicted a cut deep into Carter’s soul. Tiger hurt him badly in the early rounds and forced him to retreat. At the end of the bout, a Sports Illustrated photograph shows a beaming and unblemished Tiger posing with his hand across Carter’s shoulder. Carter, by way of contrast, looks on sheepishly; his face a spectacle of lumps and bumps.
A most revealing incident occurred in 2010 at an event in Guelph, Canada where Carter was in town to serve as a guest speaker. Afterwards, Carter sat down to sign autographs and a friend of mine, Gary Vautour, a veteran amateur boxer and trainer attempted to present him with a copy of my book, Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal.
His reaction disappointed Vautour.
“Why would I want to read about someone who beat me up?” Carter told him.
Carter’s friend, Ron Lipton, recently elucidated on this particular point.
“Rubin absolutely refused to talk about the Tiger fight in later years,” he says. “He avoided it like the plague. When Brian Kenny asked Rubin on ESPN who was his toughest fight with in the ring, he said, ‘Holley Mims’. Sorry, the toughest fight was with Dick Tiger. Rubin did not quit and fought to the end, but Tiger was too skilled and hurt him early with the heavy hook.”
Contrary to the impression that Bob Dylan’s lyrics may have conveyed, Carter was far from being a contender for the middleweight title at the time of his apprehension for the triple murder. Indeed, he was arguably on the slide. He fought nine more times after the loss to Tiger of which he lost five.
Yet Carter had it in him to have been a champion before being beset by his legal maladies.
There were self-destructive tendencies always lurking within him.
His highly demanding training regime, one which gave him a cast-iron physique, was punctuated by bouts of drinking and smoking. In fact, he was once knocked out in a sparring session having entered the ring in an inebriated state.
These lapses were unforgivable weaknesses in an era which boasts of arguably the most talented assemblage of middleweight boxers ever.
Much of the understanding that I have of Carter the fighter and Carter the man comes from Ron Lipton. Lipton was a sixteen-year old homeless New Yorker who found refuge in the boxing gymnasiums of the city. He was aware of who Carter was and what was perceived as his hostility towards white people.
But Carter’s notorious hardness melted away when the cheeky teenager begged him for a sparring position with the words, “How’d you like the chance to beat up another white boy.”
Carter roared with laughter.
Unknown to Lipton, Lipton’s father would later encourage Carter to take on a mentoring role for his head strong son. From Lipton, I heard of Carter’s tenacity in training, the methodologies behind his boxing-craft, and his skill at his favourite leisure activity of target shooting.
It was from Lipton that I also heard of a lavish birthday gift bestowed onto Carter by his friend Frankie DePaula. DePaula, who would be assassinated by the Mob in 1970, presented Carter with a two-gun western-style holster set with two .22 revolvers manufactured by a company named High Standard.
Lipton’s involvement with Carter extended from the boxing world to that pertaining to the campaign to have him freed. Although a three-time New Jersey Golden Gloves champion, he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement.
He continued to visit Carter during his incarceration, and while serving with the Verona, New Jersey Police Department he would, at an Essex County Revolver League Dinner, overhear a group of officers boast about how they had framed Carter.
Again, when working as an investigator at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, Lipton would also overhear the boasts by officers from the Passiac County team that had handled Carter’s case in which they foreswore to “bury that nigger and keep him buried at all costs.”
In January of 1974, Lipton disclosed what he knew to the New York Daily News and made a report which he brought to the attention of the then serving governor of the state of New Jersey, Brendan Byrne.
He also enlisted the help of Muhammad Ali. But Ali was not ostensibly disposed to come to the aid of Rubin Carter. There had been a certain animus between both men after Carter had made disparaging remarks at the height of his career.
One of Carter’s victim’s had been Jimmy Ellis, before Ellis metamorphosed into a heavyweight. Ellis of course had been a boyhood friend of Ali’s in their native Louisville, Kentucky and was a stable mate given his association with Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee.
Carter had offended Ali when offhandedly bragging that Ali had sent Ellis to fight him because Ali was not sure that he could do the job himself.
Ali listened to Lipton’s pitch and agreed to help Carter. In the aforementioned Daily News article, Ali was quoted as saying, “I think it’s a good thing when you get whites like Lipton reaching out to stop injustices against black people.”
Lipton was there with Ali when in 1976, Ali put up the money guarantee when Carter was bailed in 1976 pending his re-trial.
But as with the case with the Canadian hippies and Lesra, the young black protégé whom they had adopted and who grew up to become a prosecuting lawyer, a fracture occurred in their relationship.
When Lipton approached Carter to help write a character reference in a legal case in which Lipton had defended himself against three men who had waylaid him, Carter had refused; brusquely informing him that he was "always getting into scrapes.”
By contrast, Joe Frazier had acceded to Lipton’s request without demur - just as Ali had once travelled to aid Lipton in an earlier case when Lipton was acquitted of having assaulted a group of men who had invaded his home.
Carter’s reactions to his friends were littered with acts of ingratitude and even disloyalty; a trait stemming presumably from a pervasive tendency to be extremely self-centred.
Nonetheless with Lipton, at least, he made his peace as his former mentee spoke to him constantly by phone before his life ebbed away from the effects of the prostate cancer with which he had been stricken.
The legacy of Rubin Carter will not be subsumed into whatever words that may be affixed to his gravestone or other monument devised in his honour. His is a complex one; one that will continue to confound, mystify and perplex.
To some he will remain the angry social misfit; an impulsive and intemperate man who effectively duped many and took to the grave a lie about his culpability for a heinous crime.
To others, and they appear to be the majority, he will remain a key figure in the post-civil rights era whose case brought to light the serious deficiencies which plagued and continue to undermine confidence in the American criminal justice system.
They will argue that his advocacy in his post-prison life on behalf of others facing unjust captivity transcended the specific issue of racial injustice; that Carter’s worldview became focused not solely on himself or on African-Americans but on spreading a wider message and taking a pro-active stance on human rights.
And of Carter the boxer, we are left with the story of an underprivileged black man who despite the interregnum caused by his earlier bout of detention, carved out a decent career as a professional fighter over a five year time span.
It was something of a remarkable feat to rise from the circumstance of imprisonment and within a two year period, be featured on live national television stopping a fighter of the calibre of Emile Griffith.
He demonstrated toughness and resilience in not taking the easy way out and quitting against Dick Tiger, and of course, he did fight a creditably competitive bout with the reigning world champion, Joey Giardello which was nothing like the racially motivated robbery as portrayed in the film ‘The Hurricane.’
Carter’s misfortune in not winning the world championship was actually a misfortune that he shared with many other talented middleweights of the era in which he fought. Dylan’s lyric, that he “Could-a been the champion of the world” is true, although not for the reasons implied in the song.
But outside the ring, he did become a champion of sorts; this as an advocate for others believed to be victims of miscarriages of justice. Carter appears to have found a niche in helping others and evidently drew a measure of contentment in this role.
Speaking to the Poughkeepsie Journal after his passing, his friend Ron Lipton eulogised him by stating that he “realised the only joy in life that means anything is to help other people.”
(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer and law lecturer based in London, England. He is the author of the books Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.