Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bob Dylan Song Accurate Depiction of Racism against American Boxer?

Bob Dylan Song Accurate Depiction of Racism against American Boxer?
Alicia Keefe

When thinking about political and protest music, Bob Dylan’s name comes to mind. One of his most prominent protest songs, “Hurricane”, is the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter, an African American professional boxer, is best known for being convicted for the alleged murder of three people in Patterson New Jersey on June 17, 1966. The arrest of Carter, despite the lack of substantial evidence linking him to the crimes, sparked dissent-claiming racism being the reason for his arrest. Since Carter was a sporting celebrity, his arrest became a controversial examination of the treatment of African Americans in social and political America.

In 1961, Carter became a professional boxer, after developing an interest in the sport while serving time both in the army and in jail for aggravated assault (Hirsch, 2000). His intimating boxing style helped Carter to gain a reputation as being an unrelenting menace. While Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” aggrandizes Carter’s boxing career stating “but one time he could-a been, the champion of the world”, Carter’s career was not quite as accomplished. Carter won twenty of twenty-four fights, thirteen of them from knockouts, before losing the one title fight he fought in, in a 15-round decision to middleweight champion Joey Giardello in 1964 (Hirsch, 2000).

On June 17, 1966 early in the morning, two men and a woman were killed at the Lafayette Grill in Patterson New Jersey. The police arrested Carter and his friend John Artis, after pulling them over for driving a car similar to descriptions of the get-away car given by witnesses of the murder. On August 10, 1966, an all white jury convicted both men to three consecutive life sentences for the murders, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime scene (Hirsch, 2000).

Being a flourishing professional boxer with a history of past violence, many people viewed Carter as a rebel not willing to succumb to the white establishment (Wice, 2000). The desire to convict and ensure Carter would stay in prison for life stemmed from the fear that he was an abrasive, violent person, capable of being the catalyst for a race riot (Wice, 2000). The anxiety over Carter’s potential ability to start a race riot had its foundation in an incident years earlier when Carter had made public threats to the police force saying he would shoot them if they continued to abuse blacks, along with his reputation of being a merciless boxer (Hirsch, 2000).

Carter has become a poster child for racial injustice and a prime example of the long residuals of racial tensions still found in American society. While things had improved slightly from the nadir of American race relations during the reconstruction era because of the emerging Civil Rights Movement, minorities in America were still victims to racial inequality. In the case of Rubin Carter, the prosecutor’s prime witnesses against Carter have openly admitted that the police pressured them into giving false testimonies against Carter and Artis; and that the authorities frequently used racial slurs, such as calling them “animals”, when referring to both men (Hirsch, 2000). It is during this time that the legal system is not just reflecting social or scientific ideas about race; it is also producing and reproducing them, as seen with the seemingly wrongful conviction of Carter (Pascoe, 1996). Further criticism upon the Carter conviction rests upon the notion that during their trials, the juries consisted solely of white men and women, further exemplifying the racism tensions. Because of Carter’s sporting career, his conviction and the proceedings became a part of the public eye thus bring more light to the racial injustices.

With public support from people like Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, Carter and Artis appealed their conviction two times, each time found guilty. It was not until 1985 that a United States District Court judge ruled that both men had not received a fair trial, under the basis that the prosecution had used “racism rather than reason” and “concealment rather than disclosure”, having not revealed the entirety of the evidence (Wice, 2000). The white society of Patterson New Jersey viewed Rubin Carter as a threat to established social environment, afraid a disturbance he may cause through violence or his rising professional athlete status. Whether or not Rubin Carter and John Artis actually did commit the murder at Lafayette Grill may never be resolved, it is clear what Bob Dylan believes happened. For Dylan Rubin Carter will always be “The man the authorities came to blame, for somethin' that he never done”.

Works Cited

Dylan, B. & Levy, J. (1976). Hurricane (Part II). On Desire [CD]. New York: Columbia Records. (1975).

Flatter, R. (2007). Hurricane found peace at storm’s center. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from ESPN Classic Web site:

Hirsch, J.S. (2000) Hurricane: The miraculous journey of Rubin Carter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Pascoe. (1996). Miscegenation law, court cases, and ideologies of `race' in twentieth-century America. Journal of American History, 83, 44-69.

Wice, P.B. (2000). Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the American justice system. New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press.

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