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Tufts Univ. acquires Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s papers

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The personal papers of the late boxing legend Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent 19 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of triple murder, are now available to the public at Tufts University.

The archives, which Carter signed over to the university before his death in 2014, contain photographs, correspondence, notes, court documents and other artifacts, ranging from his time in prison to his release and work as an advocate for the wrongfully convicted.

“Students and faculty at Tufts are excited about issues about people who are wrongfully convicted and mass incarceration,” said Dan Santamaria, director of digital collections and archives at Tufts, “and when you look at Rubin Carter’s papers, you get to see the personal side of those issues.”

Carter, who was the subject of the 1999 film “The Hurricane,” starring Denzel Washington, became a professional boxer in 1961, and was soon ranked one of the top ten middleweight fighters in the world.

In 1966, Carter and his friend John Artis were arrested in New Jersey and charged with three murders. Despite inconsistencies in the evidence and witness testimony, Carter and Artis were convicted the following year, and sentenced to life in prison.

Several years later, after two key witnesses recanted their statements, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial — but Carter and Artis were again found guilty.

Justice on trial

During his time in prison, Carter published his autobiography, “The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472,” published in 1975, and gained the support of figures such as Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, who wrote the song, “Hurricane.”

In 1985, after spending nearly two decades in prison, the U.S. District Court in Newark overturned the second conviction on the grounds that prosecutors withheld evidence. “The extensive record clearly demonstrates that petitioner’s convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure,” wrote Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin.

Carter, who was 48 years old, was set free the next day.

Following his release, Carter became a criminal justice reform advocate and executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.

“The prison system affects everybody, not just people of color,” he told the Banner in a 2011 interview. “It affects everybody: the violence, the humiliation, the degradation, spending long periods in hate. It destroys families, it destroys mental health, it destroys self-respect. It destroys everything it touches. Prison is the only system that’s really democratic in this country. It gets hold of anybody and everybody.”

“I know how difficult it is to get anybody to listen to the voices of those who have been wrongfully convicted,” Carter went on. “Most people think that nobody’s wrongfully convicted because they believe in the system. They believe in the courts, they believe in the judges, they believe in the police, they believe in the jury system. So it takes a monumental effort to overcome that burden.”

Santamaria said the archives offer an “un-sanitized, behind-the-scenes” view of Carter that isn’t available from his books or public lectures.

One of his favorite items in the collection is a laminated copy of the writ of habeas corpus that released Carter from prison 30 years ago. “We weren’t initially sure why it was laminated,” said Santamaria. “But John Artis told us the story of how Carter would carry this laminated copy around with him and whip it out very dramatically at opportune moments.”

Another important part of the archive, Santamaria said, are the letters Carter received from children and other wrongfully convicted men and women all over the world. “When you read the individual letters, you can see his impact on individual people, and when you take it on the whole, the boxes of letters, you can see his broader impact,” he said.

Kendra Field, interim director for the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts, agreed, saying that the letters show the personal side of mass incarceration—and not just for Carter, but for all those who wrote seeking his guidance.

Field already has students from the Africana and History departments engaging with the archive, and said that the Center is planning to designate one of its annual Gerald Gill fellowships to the legacy of Carter and Artis.

“We anticipate rich student and faculty research emerging on the life and writings of Rubin Carter,” she said.

But Santamaria stressed that the archive is not just for Tufts students and faculty — the materials are open to the public.

“We’re happy to help anyone that’s interested,” said Santamaria. “Anyone who’s interested can come and explore and try to make connections to their own lives and what’s going on today.”

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