On April 19, 1989, Yusef Salaam’s life, along with 4 others, changed forever. On that night, they became collectively known as “The Central Park Five,” when they were charged and convicted in New York City of a crime they did not commit. Yusef was 15 years old at the time.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of that event, and Dr. Yusef Salaam spent January 21, 2019, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with Ames Community School District staff and students. Dr. Salaam shared his deeply personal story in an incredibly powerful and inspiration presentation. As he walked staff through his journey, he expressed the feelings and emotions that he felt 30 years ago. He was “railroaded into a criminal justice system of injustice,” based on the color of his skin, yet still finds ways to see his unnecessary time in prison as a blessing.
A few months into his prison term, just when prison life was starting to become normalized, he recalled a story when a guard asked him “who are you?” He explained he was one of the wrongfully committed Central Park Five, but that was not the question the guard asked him. The guard repeated, “but who are you?”
Dr. Salaam recalls that that single question changed the trajectory of his time in prison. Over the next 7 years, he read more, studied more, and reflected on who he really was. In 2002, all five who were wrongfully convicted after spending between 7 and 13 years of their lives behind bars, were set free when their convictions were overturned when a convicted murderer and rapist confessed to the crime.
You can learn more about Dr. Salaam’s story, as it was the subject of prolific documentarian Ken Burns in his 2013 documentary “The Central Park Five.” Dr. Salaam was awarded an Honorary Doctorate that same year and received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 from President Barack Obama. He is on the board of directors of The Innocence Project, whose mission is to “exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice,” and is currently working with executive producers Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro, and Ava DuVernay on a Netflix feature titled “Central Park Five,” that is due out in May 2019.
Dr. Salaam spoke about how our future is alive and well with our youth. “There is greatness in our young people, and we need to see that and encourage it.” It was a perfect message for our staff and students, and perfectly reinforces the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.