Published February 25, 2020
Criminal justice advocate Yusef Salaam told an enthusiastic UB audience, “As Dr. King said, once you have found your purpose in life, do it as if God himself called you to do it … be that excellent.”
Salaam was the featured speaker for UB’s 44th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, held Monday in Alumni Arena on the North Campus.
“Everything is building you to become the person you are to be,” said Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, formerly the Central Park Five.
“You have to be careful who you let define your reality.”
In 1989, Salaam was one of five teenagers wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park.
On April 20 of that year, Salaam, then 15 years old, was picked up by police. He had been with a large group of teens in Central Park the night before and police suspected that some of them were responsible for the rape in the park that night.
After hours of interrogation, four of the teens confessed to a crime they didn’t commit. Salaam never made a written or videotaped confession.
“What I knew was I didn’t do anything. I hadn’t committed any crimes,” Salaam told the audience. “It was one of the most painful experiences imaginable. In 1989, I was run over by the spiked wheels of justice.
“The media coverage of what they called the ‘Central Park jogger case’ was intense,” he said. “At the time of the trial, New Yorkers banded together to denounce us. Over 400 media stories fanned the flames of a sensational story, and painted a picture of us as evil.”
Although DNA evidence found on the victim didn’t match any of the accused, and their “confessions” were wildly different, the boys were charged with rape and assault.
A very public trial ensued.
“They depicted us as coming from crack-filled neighborhoods, coming out into normal society and hunting for folks. That these are the families we come from. Yet, my mother was teaching at Parsons University at the time. They didn’t want that.
“Two weeks after the arrest, Donald Trump took out a full-page ad saying they should kill us,” Salaam said.
He was convicted of rape and assault, and was given a sentence of five to 10 years. Others in the group were sentenced for up to 13 years in prison as teenagers in New York.
Their convictions were vacated in 2002, after spending between seven and 13 years of their lives behind bars. Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to the crime, and his DNA matched evidence at the scene.
The convictions of the boys — now men — were overturned and they were exonerated.
“The Central Park jogger case is actually a story of how a criminal system of injustice can be turned on its side to produce a miracle in modern time,” Salaam said. “This is a story of how people can be brought low only to rise because the truth can never be buried.
“I think the Central Park jogger case has to be looked at as a microcosm of a macrocosm of cases just like that. It’s famous, yes, but it’s just one in a can of worms of cases just like it. Things like that are markers for us to understand how bad we’re doing as a result of our system.
“Reform has to happen,” he continued. “I think it would be a tremendous step if we reform the 13th Amendment. The fact that we have that, still, as part of the founding documents of this country, points to how to repair the system.”
Since his release, Salaam has committed himself to advocating and educating people on the issues of false confessions, police brutality and misconduct, press ethics and bias, race and law, and the disparities in America’s criminal justice system.
In 2013, Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon released the documentary “The Central Park Five,” which told the story from the perspective of Salaam and the others in the group who were wrongfully convicted.
In 2014, the Central Park Five received a multimillion-dollar settlement from the city of New York for its injustice against them. Salaam also received an honorary doctorate that year.
He is a board member of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization committed to exonerating those who are wrongly convicted of crimes. He was an advocate for a New York state law passed in 2017 that requires law enforcement agencies to videotape interrogations of those accused of serious non-drug felonies. In 2016, President Barack Obama presented Salaam with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In May 2019, Netflix released the limited series titled “When They See Us,” based on the true story of Salaam and the other members of the Central Park Five. The series was created and directed by Ava DuVernay; executive producers included Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro.
A question-and-answer period, moderated by Suzanne Rosenblith, dean of the Graduate School of Education, followed Salaam’s remarks.
Asked about “When They See Us,” Salaam said the series was 90% accurate.
“It definitely did a lot to bring us back into the front of society and bring [out] the issues of the criminal justice system and the problems we’ve been facing,” Salaam told the audience. “It’s done a lot to provide a platform for us to talk about the issues in a real and powerful way.
“The idea, for instance, was to understand everybody in the community — anyone — was a suspect.”
Rosenblith asked Salaam, “You often speak to young people about not giving up. Is there a message for parents?”
“Keep inspiring our young people,” Salaam replied. “Look at the gifts each of us has. We are in a major bullying phase now — especially with social media. None of that stuff counts.
“Young people should understand nobody is going to be able to live your life for you. In the spirit of Dr. King, whether you are called as a street sweeper or a leader of society, if this is your purpose, he said to do it as if God himself called you.
“Give your gifts to the world and the world will be a better place for it.”
Asked about the benefits of having received a college degree while he was in prison, Salaam responded, “When you get educated, you can add balance to the world and worth to your community. You need to matter to yourself so you can live this life you’re in.
“I am a student of life. As Maya Angelou said, ‘Bitterness is like a cancer … it eats into the host.’ If you have anger, take that anger and vote it, march it, focus it,” he said. “Do everything you can do to be resilient. You’ve got to keep moving so you can help to educate future generations.
“Young people are the future. You are the kaleidoscope of the human family.”