By Vanessa Vieites
In 1989 four black and one Latino teenagers had their civil rights violated. They were accused and convicted of the brutal rape of a young woman in New York City’s Central Park, publicly dubbed “The Central Park Five.” It took 13 years for them to be exonerated and have their convictions overturned, when the real culprit, a serial rapist and murderer who was already serving a life sentence, confessed to the rape. DNA evidence showed that the 5 boys—now men—were innocent after all.
On Jan. 17, to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s advocacy for liberty and justice for all, FIU hosted its annual MLK breakfast. The keynote speaker was one of the now-Exonerated Five, Yusef Salaam. Since his release from prison, Salaam has worked to educate others on false confessions, police brutality and misconduct, and America’s criminal justice system, among other issues. He spoke about his wrongful conviction and what he has learned from his experiences. He also read from his new book of poems, WORDS of a MAN: My Right to Be.
His presentation struck a cord with members of the FIU community.
“I had heard of the Central Park Five, but I didn’t know any of their names. I didn’t know [Salaam] would be here,” said Nicholas Bolet, an English graduate student who attended the breakfast. “Seeing and hearing him speak really resonated with me. There is so much stigma placed on inmates. They are trying their best. Yusef is an example of that.”
In 2003, Salaam and the four others sued the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress and eventually won a $41 million dollar settlement. While he can never recover the time lost, Salaam has dedicated himself to doing whatever can to give a voice to the marginalized.
“Being able to listen to [Salaam] say that everyone’s life has a purpose even if our voices are not always heard was powerful and meaningful," said Brianna Pankey, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience. "It motivates me to understand my purpose here. I know that I’m doing something bigger than me.”
Senior business and finananc major Caroline Martelly appreciated Salaam’s words. “It’s incredible that he is sharing his knowledge with us and that he received his bachelor’s degree in prison. His speech inspires me to transform my struggles into something positive.”