Justice isn’t something too many Black men understand. They do recognize that, as Americans, they are entitled to a helping of it, but how can any Black man know how small his helping will be?
That’s a feeling Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who died on Sunday of prostate cancer, had to take to his grave. Carter could tell every person in America who cared to listen a story of what happens when justice is denied.
Carter was a Black man who had to fight harder than most to get just a sliver of it, and he didn’t get his until he had spent 19 years of his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
Oh, what Black man hasn’t heard a story like Carter’s: An all-white jury rushed to judgment, convicting Carter in 1966 for the murders of two white men and one white woman in Paterson, New Jersey.
At the time of the triple killings, Carter was a charismatic, hard-as-nails, bald-as-a-cue-ball, muscled middleweight; his all-out fury of blows, which earned him his nickname, had him on the verge of boxing greatness.
Hurricane Carter had no motive to kill someone.
His trial and conviction made no sense. Nor did the retrial an appeals court granted him in 1976. The verdict in his retrial was the same, on even flimsier evidence: guilty.
It must be hard on a man to see his life wasting away unjustly behind prison walls. No amount of sympathy can soften the cold reality that a legal system designed to protect the innocent had imprisoned an innocent man. We might expect such wrongs in totalitarian societies like Russia, Iran or North Korea, places where a man’s guilt is decided before he steps foot inside a courtroom.
Not in America, though … not in a country where its people have built a legal system beyond reproach.
Yet what happened to Hurricane Carter and to others of his color can quiet any talk about justice in America. Justice here is for the ones who can afford it, and even those men who can might ask if they, too, are a miscarriage of justice away from prison.
U.S. prisons are filled with other Hurricane Carters. We might not know their names, but we know they are there. They are victims of shaky identifications, lousy lawyering or police misconduct.
Hurricane Carter fell victim to all three.
He might well have spent his life since ’66 in prison if not for his own relentless quest for justice. He never let the lies stick to him. He never let prison rob him of his dignity. His impassioned plea for vindication won him allies in Bob Dylan, Roberta Flack, Joan Baez and Muhammad Ali, among other public figures of the era.
It also won Hurricane Carter his freedom. But is a Black man ever free when he knows another injustice might await him? That’s the challenge of being Black in America. It is its own hell, a point Hurricane Carter seemed to make in an opinion piece he wrote earlier this year for The New York Daily News.
“To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all,” he wrote on his deathbed.
Yes, it would be heaven enough, but only if truth and justice did come to Black men like Hurricane Carter, a cause célèbre who later advocated for the unjustly convicted, when the scales of justice are so imbalanced.
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(Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images)