Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of five people known as the Exonerated Five, spoke at the Kansas Union's Woodruff Auditorium Saturday, Feb. 8 about his experiences with the justice system.
The Exonerated Five, formerly known as the Central Park Five, were wrongfully convicted for the April 19, 1989 rape and attempted murder of a New York woman in Central Park. It was known as a case that “rocked the city,” per the programming guide provided at the event.
The event was put together by Student Union Activities, the Student Involvement and Leadership Center, the department of sociology, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Muslim Student Association, Watkins Health Services, the Office of First-Year Experience, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, Student Senate, Black Student Union and Gifted Empowered Motivated Sisters.
“It was almost as if they were hoping that someone, from the darkest enclaves of society, would do to us what they’ve done to Emmett Till,” Salaam said.
Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy who, after allegedly having whistled at a white woman, was kidnapped and murdered in Georgia.
Early in the presentation, Salaam shared one of many letters he received before he was exonerated. The letters wished for physical violence and death against him.
Salaam also shared an experience his mother faced he heard from one of her friends.
“The police recognized her and started following her from their cop car. And then, over the bullhorn, began to say, ‘That’s her right there. That’s the bitch. The mother of the dog, Yusef Salaam,’" Salaam said, "This caused her to go into hiding, and eventually she got fired from her job.”
Later, Salaam described what it's like to be a minority in the justice system.
“This is a country where we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty," Salaam said, "But if you happen to have a skin color like mine, they see you as guilty, and have to prove yourself innocent.”
Salaam was found guilty in court for rape, assault, robbery and riot. He was sentenced for five to 10 years in prison in 1990.
“It was such a painful experience to be free one day, then to be run over by the spike falls of justice, yet again,” Salaam said.
Salaam said he was determined not to die during his six years and eight months in prison.
“I heard you can do one of two things in prison: either you can do the time, or you can let time do you...," Salaam said, "If you let time do you, you never realize the great words of the great philosopher Cardi B. She said, ‘Fall down nine times, get up ten.’”
Even if getting back up seems impossible, Salaam said, that it isn’t, and neither is anything else.
“I went to jail and went and got a college degree...we can do anything,” Salaam said.
Reflecting on his experience after getting out, Salaam said that his story has more to it than just people getting tricked.
“The Central Park jogger case is actually a story of a criminal system of injustice placed on its side in order to produce a miracle in modern time,” Salaam said.
Jaren Dailey, president of the Black Student Union, said she was moved by the presentation.
“It is a really sad topic that also needs to be talked about, or there wouldn’t be as much exposure on the topic and it wouldn’t be fixed,” Dailey said.
—Edited by Brianna Wessling