Profiles, Standing on the Shoulders of Greatness: John Artis

Profiles is a series of features in collaboration with Lawrence Kerr Photography 
and ByBlacks.com. The Original article was published in full by ByBlacks.com
When John Artis and Rubin ”Hurricane” Carter  met in 1966, John was 19 years old and fresh out of high school. He was a boy scout and in the school choir.

Rubin was 28 years old and a professional boxer. The two had little in common except for a mutual friend who briefly introduced them. But the two would soon become much closer. About two weeks after John and Rubin met, the pair were arrested; accused of killing three white people. At the end of the trial both Rubin and John were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. John and Rubin served more than 15 years of their life sentences before a judge decided the charges were racially motivated and ruled the convictions be set aside.

After his release, Rubin moved to Toronto and co-founded the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) and later Innocence International. John later joined Rubin in his work for the wrongly accused. John also lived with and took care of Rubin when his prostate cancer became aggressive. Rubin passed away in April this year, and John has since assumed the leadership position of Innocence International. I had the chance to sit down with John and talk with him about his life and his friendship with Rubin.

When did you and Rubin really become friends?

When we were stopped that night, and taken to the scene of the crime. They took us downtown and started to ask us questions. Then they took us to the hospital to be confronted by the person who had been shot. (Two victims died on scene, while one died in hospital.) That’s when we became friends. It was unspoken, but that’s when we became friends.

When Rubin became really sick, you came to live with him here in Toronto, what made you decide to do that?

My dad had said that if you have five friends in a lifetime, you’ve had a lot. Well, I’ve had one, it’s been Rubin Carter. When we were found guilty and had to go to prison, I didn’t know anything about prison and he gave me a few words of wisdom. I’ve always had his back and he’s always had my back, so it was a no-brainer now that he needed help. After always helping other people, it was unthinkable not to come up here. Especially when I found out that what he had was terminal.

John was with Rubin the morning he died. He describes the moments just before Rubin’s death. “He was peaceful; holding out his arms, as if he were reaching to something in the sky before they folded across his chest and he died without a sound.” John says although it was a sad moment for him he was glad Rubin was no longer suffering, saying that just the week before he died, the pain was so severe it caused Rubin to scream in agony.

John says he functions without his friend, by trying to keep his emotions regulated by his intellect. However, John admits that while speaking in front of a large audience just three days after Rubin died, his emotions came crashing in on him and he began to cry uncontrollably. It was the first time he had talked about Rubin’s death.

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John Artis and I by Lawrence Kerr.