More than 250 people gathered inside William & Mary’s Sadler Center Thursday evening to hear Yusef Salaam speak of surviving nearly seven years of incarceration as a teenager.
Salaam, of the “Exonerated Five,” received a standing ovation.
He was just 15 when he and four other teens — four African-American and one Latino — were arrested and convicted for the assault, rape, and attempted murder of a woman, who became famously known as the “Central Park Jogger” in 1989, according to the website.
The teens became collectively known as the “Central Park Five” and would spend their childhoods, between 7 and 13 years, in prison before their sentences were overturned.
It wasn’t until 2002 when a convicted murderer and rapist serving a life sentence confessed and matched the unidentified DNA in the Central Park Jogger case, did the Central Park Five get fully exonerated, the site reads.
In the years following, the infamous story has been retold by renowned documentarian Ken Burns in his 2012 film “Central Park Five,” and most recently portrayed in the 2019 Netflix series, “When They See Us,” by Ava DuVernay.
Salaam’s “moderated conversation” was part of William & Mary’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Program sponsored by the school’s Center for Student Diversity, Office of Community Values & Restorative Practices, and Law School Office of Student Services.
The two-hour event aimed to “celebrate the legacy of King, who devoted his life to advocation for equality, human rights and justice,” according to the school’s website.
“The legacy of Dr. King for me is to know that I can live as full a life as I can,” Salaam said. “Fighting for justice, fighting for equality, fighting for similar human rights, is something that I’m standing on his shoulders because he had the opportunity to stand.”
To kick off the event, the audience stood together in chorus to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as images of memorable moments in black history, ranging from the arrest of Rosa Parks to survivors wading through the ruins of Hurricane Katrina, flashed on a large screen at the front of the room.
A moment of silence and an interpretive reading of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech by student John Ezzard ’23 followed.
Stephanie Walters, TV show host and producer, moderated the hour-long discussion with Salaam covering topics, ranging from how he felt about King’s legacy, coping with his unjust incarceration to his reaction to watching the Netflix series’ portrayal of his criminal case.
“It was very traumatic,” he said about watching the series. “It was a brilliant, beautiful truth telling that pulled at our heartstrings.”
Salaam said he coped with the aftermath of his experiences with prayer, meditation and even writing poetry. He said speaking at events also provides a sort of therapy for him.
He read excerpts from his book of poetry, Words of a Man, My Right to Be, newspaper clippings, and letters published at the time of the criminal case.
He’d pull them from a black folder he carried on stage with him as if to show what the social climate was like at the time of the five’s criminal proceedings.
Salaam laughed when he held up one newspaper clipping that had been written by then New York mogul, Donald Trump. Trump had paid $85,000 for an ad in the New York Times seeking the reinstatement of the death penalty on account of the teenage boys’ alleged heinous crime.
Salaam said the ad opened the door for other threats and letters — he then pulled out a note from the black folder he brought.
Prior to reading that letter, Salaam said newspapers had published his home address and his mother was concerned for his safety so she sent him to live with an aunt nearby.
“So just remember 20 to 30 years, some people will never forget and it may be the one time you don’t check your back is the one time we say hello,” the note read.
The last newspaper he’d hold up in front of the audience showed a sorrowful juror’s face covering the entire front page: “We got the wrong kids.”
Salaam’s friend, Korey Wise, was one of the five though he was not an initial suspect in the crime. Wise would escort Salaam to the police station but ultimately ended up with the most severe prison sentence of out the all of them, Salaam said.
“When the police came to get me, he ends up saying to himself ‘I got to go with you because if I don’t, your mom will kill me,” Salaam said. “Korey then goes to prison wanting to have my back and he ends up freeing us all.”
Wise would get transferred to a prison where he’d come face-to-face with the actual Central Park Jogger’s assailant who’d confess, Salaam said.
Salaam had advice for today’s youth and noted the importance of understanding “your right to remain silent,” self-awareness education, and to “understand we’re fighting…a multifaceted system.”
Event hosts opened the floor allowing five audience members to ask Salaam questions following the moderated discussion.
One woman, a Richmond teacher, wanted tips on how to support her students who were previously incarcerated or whose parents had been incarcerated, to which Salaam replied, “give them support” and “outlets for the pain.”
All who spoke thanked Salaam for his words and visiting the school including one woman who said she’d been arrested and sentenced to years in jail for spitting at an officer. She asked Salaam for his guidance and advice denying she committed the crime, claiming police targeted her for being Native American.
The woman went on to say she’s since gone back to school and is the first in her family who’ll graduate from college, but has difficulty finding a job as a convicted felon.
“We can transform our pain into purpose because if we don’t do that, we become ticking time bombs,” Salaam said. “But once we transform our pain into purpose, we become undeniable.”
More than 50 people would line up at the close of the event for a meet and greet and book signing with Salaam.
For more information about Yusef Salaam, his book Words of a Man, My Right to Be, or the Exonerated Five, click here.