Lesra Martin may be famous for his role in bringing justice to pro boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter.
But his greatest fight wasn’t freeing the innocent Carter from prison, it was freeing himself from a life of injustices.
Martin was in town Thursday sharing his inspirational life story with Clarence Fulton, W.L. Seaton and Kalamalka secondary students.
While he’s now a father of two girls and a successful lawyer based out of Kamloops, Martin recalls his own harrowing teenage years.
Growing up in the ghetto, at just 15-years-old Martin was one of many dismissed by society and raised as an illiterate.
“I remember, at the age of 15 I could neither read nor write a single word of English,” said Martin, brought up in a dangerous, gang-infested neighbourhood in Bushwick, New York.
Teachers at his inner-city school would pass students from grade to grade just for showing up.
In fact in Grade 10, he was tested for reading and it was determined that he couldn’t even read at a Grade 2 level.
Yet the young man had just graduated from his English class of 40 with the third highest marks.
Although his own teachers didn’t take the time to see it, Martin had potential, even underneath his own self-doubts. And in 1979, through a chance encounter on the subway, a group of Canadians took a chance on Martin.
The group gave him an opportunity to break from his life of illiteracy and come with them to Toronto. They surrounded him with books, never pressuring him to crack them, but providing a window to a better life.
The Canadians who adopted Martin often took him to book stores and sales, and it was in a library discard bin that Martin found his greatest source of inspiration, Rubin (Hurricane) Carter’s 1974 autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, on sale for just 25 cents.
Martin was moved by the prizefighter’s story of how he was serving a life sentence for a triple murder that he did not commit. He was so touched that he wrote to Carter, even visited him in prison and soon his Canadian housemates joined Martin and devoted five years to Carter’s cause.
Thanks to their efforts, Carter was exonerated in 1985, 22 years after his arrest.
The remarkable story was the subject of the 1999 inspirational movie, Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington as Carter. Martin is featured in the parallel plot, played by Vicellous Reon Shannon, for his role in helping to free Carter.
“Hate put me in prison, love’s gonna bust me out,” Carter’s character says in the Hollywood film.
Now Martin uses his life story to inspire others to unlock their own potential.
“You can take a malnourished, illiterate kid from the ghetto, fatten him up a bit and educate him,” Martin laughed. “Despite the odds, you can win.”