Yusef Salaam calls for more political participation to end systemic racism

Salaam spoke about his unjust conviction as part of the Central Park Five and his refusal to give into the narratives police and media had defined for him


Salaam signs copies of his most recent book “Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice” while meeting students, faculty and community members who attended his talk. Photo by Grace Mamon, ’22

Luke Fountain

Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five, used personal anecdotes of his unjust conviction to discuss his hopes for change and his advice for progress. 

He spoke on Jan. 23 in Wilson Concert Hall at Washington and Lee University, and spoke with students during a book signing event after the talk. 

Salaam is a Black man who was tried and convicted in the “Central Park Jogger” assault and rape case in 1989, along with four other Black and Latinx young men. He was just 15-years-old.

The five teens spent up to 13 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit — Salaam himself spending seven — until their sentences were overturned in 2002.

They received a multi-million-dollar settlement from the city of New York for its injustice. The Exonerated Five have also been profiled in The Central Park Five documentary from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. More recently, writer and director Ava DuVernay created the award-winning Netflix limited series “When They See Us.”

Salaam opened with a captivating rap which he had written, highlighting how his story has been narrated by others, including the media, for much of his life.

“Instead of giving facts, the media made you confused. Now the people don’t know, all they see is the media…they’re constantly deceiving us.” Salaam rapped. “This case is not a case, it’s just a crafted sham.”

Salaam moved on to discuss how the police and the media tried, and were mostly successful, in dehumanizing the Central Park Five, calling them “thugs” and “animals.”

“[The police] wanted us to accept the definition they had defined for us,” Salaam said.

But Salaam said he refused to give in to this narrative. Instead, he listened to the final piece of advice from his mother, who he describes as his “modern day Harriet Tubman,” given right before he went to prison. 

“Stop talking to them,” Salaam’s mother told him. “They need you to participate in whatever it is they are trying to do. Do not participate. Refuse.”

Salaam was the only member of the Central Park Five to not confess to the crimes he was being accused of.

Despite his refusal to confess, the criminalizing media narrative of the Central Park Five stuck for many years. 

Salaam described  how he was still in danger every day, even after he and the rest of the Central Park Five were exonerated in 2002.

“Some people will never forget,” Salaam said. “And the one time you don’t check your back, someone may be there to give you an unpleasant hello.”

Despite the traumatic events Salaam has endured, he remains optimistic and eager to share his experiences with audiences to create change and inspire others.

Salaam explained that the “generational curse” of systemic racism “is alive and well” and that actions must be taken to address it. The most important tool for change, according to Salaam, is participation.

“You have to vote,” Salaam said. “Disenfranchisement is by design.”  

Salaam also emphasized that being an activist in street protests or rallies  can  create some change, but not enough.

“We have to do revolutionary acts,” Salaam said. “What happens in the streets must be responded to in the board rooms.”

Salaam said he hopes young generations today are using new language like “defund” and “abolish” when speaking about police reform — and that they are finally being listened to. 

There is optimism, according to Salaam, in lawmakers finally supporting the end to child incarceration, legalizing recreational drugs and reallocating some funds from police to community organizations aimed at mitigating conflict between police and minorities.

Salaam ended his speech with a call for empathy and “walking in someone else’s shoes.” 

“We have to be able to go into harmonious spaces to be able to understand how to unify people together,” Salaam said. 

Salaam’s appearance at Washington and Lee was the final event of a week-long dedication to Martin Luther King Jr. 

Trey Smith, ’22L, president of the Washington and Lee Black Law Students Association, said Salaam’s talk was the perfect anchor to the week — reminding the community of King’s still-relevant advocacy for equality and love. 

“It’s so easy to think that everything is fine now and that we’re that much more equal in the wake of the civil rights movement,” Smith said. “But bringing Dr. Salaam here showed that there is still so much further to go, and that there’s still so much room to embody Dr. King’s legacy.”