By Emma Ford
Thursday, Jan. 30, the Center for Student Diversity, the Office of Community Values and Restorative Practices and the College of William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law Office of Student Services hosted speaker and activist Yusef Salaam as part of their annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event.
Three decades ago in 1989, the lives of Salaam and four other boys were changed forever. Salaam and his friend Korey Wise had decided to accompany a large group of young boys going to Central Park in New York City. Unbeknown to them, their decision sparked the beginnings of a national scandal, as well as a decades-long battle with the U.S. justice system and institutionalized racism.
On the same night, Trisha Meili, out on a late-night jog, was raped and left for dead by an attacker. The trial that followed Meili’s assault was one of the most intensely broadcasted and debated cases in New York City history, as the police and detectives falsely convicted four young black boys — one of whom was Salaam — and one Latino boy in the rape and attempted murder of Meili. The boys then spent between seven to 13 years in jail for a crime they did not commit. Salaam’s unjust imprisonment made him conscious of inequality in the United States, especially the inequality decried by King.
“I THINK THE LEGACY THAT DR. KING GAVE US IS TO CONTINUE DREAMING,” SALAAM SAID. “SOMETIMES PEOPLE GET STUCK WITH THE IDEA OF WHAT HIS SPEECH WAS WITHOUT REALLY GETTING INTO THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF WHAT HE WAS SAYING. I DEFINITELY WOKE UP TO THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, AND WHEN I THINK ABOUT MY CASE, ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL THINGS THEY WERE TRYING TO GET ME TO BELIEVE WAS THAT I SHOULDN’T DREAM AT ALL, THAT I SHOULD JUST ACCEPT WHAT IT IS THAT THEY WANT ME TO BE AND NEVER THINK ABOUT WHAT GOD CREATED FOR ME. NEVER THINK THAT I WAS BORN ON PURPOSE OR WITH A PURPOSE. NEVER THINK THAT I HAD SOMETHING TO CONTRIBUTE. AND SO, THE LEGACY OF DR. KING FOR ME IS TO KNOW THAT I CAN LIVE AS FULL OF LIFE AS I CAN SO THAT WHEN DEATH COMES FOR ME THAT I’LL DIE IN PEACE.”
“I think the legacy that Dr. King gave us is to continue dreaming,” Salaam said. “Sometimes people get stuck with the idea of what his speech was without really getting into the nuts and bolts of what he was saying. I definitely woke up to the American nightmare, and when I think about my case, one of the most powerful things they were trying to get me to believe was that I shouldn’t dream at all, that I should just accept what it is that they want me to be and never think about what God created for me. Never think that I was born on purpose or with a purpose. Never think that I had something to contribute. And so, the legacy of Dr. King for me is to know that I can live as full of life as I can so that when death comes for me that I’ll die in peace.”
Associate Director of the Center for Student Diversity Shené Owens opened the program by explaining how and why Salaam was selected as the event’s speaker. Owens told the story of how Alton Coston ’23 asked Salaam to speak, and described how he worked with Dean and Director Kimberly Weatherly to bring Salaam to campus.
“He said, ‘let’s get the exonerated five for MLK,’ and I look at them, because I know what my budget is, and I said, ‘let’s get the exonerated one,’” Owens said. “… Fast-forward a couple months later, press release comes out and Alton gives me a text; he goes, ‘you made it happen.’ … Dr. Weatherly called the law school, she calls CPRP, we got a little community fund put together, and we got one of the five.”
Coston and KeAisha House ’23 introduced Salaam and the event moderator Stephanie Walters, a television host.
“One of those boys, Yusef Salaam was only 15 years old at the time his life was upended and changed forever,” Coston said. “Since his release, Yusef has committed himself to advocating and educating people on the issues of false confessions, police brutality, misconduct, press ethics and bias, race and disparities and the American justice and the youth system.”
The conversation started by discussing King’s legacy and Salaam’s thoughts on King’s message and activism. Salaam discussed how he looks up to King and how amazed he is by the struggles God places on people.
“I THINK THAT STRUGGLE IS THE BEAUTIFUL THING ABOUT LIFE, YOU KNOW,” SALAAM SAID. “WHEN YOU ARE CALLED TO BEFORE GOD, THAT YOU ARE GOING TO BE ABLE TO STAND WITH YOUR HEAD HELD HIGH HAVING LIVED A LIFE OF SIGNIFICANCE. THE THING IS THAT WHEN WE LOOK AT DR. KING’S LIFE, HE POINTS THE WAY TELLING US THAT HE MAY NOT GET TO THE MOUNTAIN TOP WITH US, YOU KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING, BUT LETTING US KNOW THAT WE ARE GOING TO GET THERE SOMEDAY — LETTING US KNOW THAT WE TOO CAN, WALKING INTO THE FUTURE.”
“I think that struggle is the beautiful thing about life, you know,” Salaam said. “When you are called to before God, that you are going to be able to stand with your head held high having lived a life of significance. The thing is that when we look at Dr. King’s life, he points the way telling us that he may not get to the mountain top with us, you know what I’m saying, but letting us know that we are going to get there someday — letting us know that we too can, walking into the future.”
Dialogue then shifted into a discussion around the false arrest and conviction of Salaam and the other four boys, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Wise. Walters referenced the Netflix television show “When They See Us” as a key factor in bringing the case into modern conversations.
Salaam discussed his experience relieving that time period through the series, stating that the experience was traumatic. He said he initially sat down with the show’s writers around breakfast time, and finished eight hours later only to realize that any time had passed.
“It was such a relief to talk this story through from the very beginning to the very end and for it to be captured,” Salaam said.
Salaam explained that the show made him and the other boys, now men, feel proud of sharing their story. He said he has been amazed by the public’s response and was impressed by how people rallied behind the show when it was released.
“It’s continuing to have this snowball affect where this movement has started,” Salaam said. “And the movement of being able to change the world, and the movement of being able to know that you can live on purpose — that’s what this is. So we needed all of that, we needed to be broken, we needed to be built back up, we needed to be restored, we needed to be able to be seen as having a life of significance. What did it all mean? Did we go through all of that for nothing? And why?”
As the show was being written and produced, Salaam recalled a time when Oprah Winfrey asked him a question he often gets: how did he get through this experience?
Salaam talked of turning to prayer to help him get through his sentence during his time in prison. He also began writing a book of poems titled “Words of a Man: My Right to Be.” Salaam read aloud a piece of his writing to answer Winfrey’s question.
“The Central Park jogger case is actually a love story between God and his people,” Salaam said. “It’s a story of a criminal system of injustice placed on trial and turned on its side in order to produce a miracle in modern time. It’s a story of how a people can be brought low only to rise because the truth can never stay buried. Of a people buried alive forgotten, the system forgotten recedes. And instead of a social death, we emerge like a phoenix, from the ashes, because as they built the fire to consume us, they forgot the owner of the heat.”
Salaam explained that beyond his friend Wise, he did not know the boys he was locked up in jail with. He mentioned that Wise wouldn’t have been picked up by the police had he not gone down to the station to protect Salaam.
After learning Wise was 16, officers realized he could be interrogated without an adult present, which Salaam recalled resulted in Wise being beaten by the police into a false confession. He then remembered that the detectives had entered Salaam’s room and threaten him by saying he was next to be beaten.
“Korey then goes to prison, wanting to have my back, and he ends up freeing us all,” Salaam said. “He ends up being strong enough to deny himself to go before a parole board anymore; why go through this. We already know what the outcome’s going to be. … He said, ‘if they don’t want to hear my truth, I don’t want to waste my time.’”
During his time in prison, Wise ran into the real perpetrator of the Central Park jogger case, Matias Reyes, and after that interaction, Reyes decided to confess to the crime. Wise was subsequently released, but it took over a decade for the boys to then receive a $41 million settlement from the state of New York.
Salaam hopes that his story can be an example to all young people. He joked how at the time, if someone had said the word “Miranda” to him, he would think they were talking about a girl in his class, rather than denoting his constitutional right to remain silent.
“I said to Korey, ‘look man, I’m just going to go the cops,’” Salaam said. “I know that I didn’t do anything wrong and you didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just going to go to the cops and tell them what I saw. I’ll be home before my mom gets back. I end up coming home almost seven years later. He ends up coming home almost 14 years later.”
He explained that when Reyes confessed, the police and detectives on the case were reluctant to admit to their mistake, instead creating a new hypothesis that Reyes was the sixth perpetrator.
“I want folks to understand two things,” Salaam said. “One, that we were 14, 15, 16-year-old children, that we were still babies. The other is that the real perpetrator, because they got stuck with that mistake, was allowed to commit more crimes. That’s what we have to consider.”
Walters then asked Salaam what his thoughts were on President Donald Trump taking out four full-page ads in different New York City newspapers, calling for the death penalty to be reinstated for the trial of the boys back when they were first accused.
In response to her question, Salaam reached into his briefcase and pulled out Trump’s advertisement. He also read aloud a letter that was sent to him, telling him to watch his back at all times because he would never know when someone would be there ready to get rid of him.
“We live in two Americas: separate and unequal,” Salaam said. “Somebody didn’t just write to the daily news and times and say ‘hey, can you just put this in the paper?’ This was created; somebody thought about this, somebody sat down and planned this. What you don’t know is that in 1989, there were over 400 articles written about us within the first two weeks. This was a tsunami that we were not supposed to survive. On the heels of that and in conjunction with it, they published our names, photographs and addresses in New York City newspapers. And then you have Donald Trump’s ad. This right here is a whisper into the darkest enclaves of society. That you could do to us that they had done to Emmett Till.”
Salaam ended the discussion by emphasizing that God lets people struggle to build them into the people they need to be in the future, and to be strong enough for what they will need to face one day.
“You will not leave this earth until your mission is finished,” Salaam said. “And that’s the beauty of life.”