“You were born on purpose,” Yusef Salaam, public speaker and one of the Exonerated 5, said. “If you were born on purpose, then you were born with a purpose.” 

Salaam spoke to a crowd of more than 400 people at the Michigan Union Ballroom on Monday night. Sponsors of the event included Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, the Ford School of Public Policy and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, among many others. 

The Exonerated 5, previously known as the Central Park 5, were falsely accused of rape in 1989 and sentenced for up to 13 years in prison as teenagers in New York. The defendants’ assault convictions were overturned in 2002 and the five agreed to a $40 million settlement in 2014. A Netflix series called “When They See Us” shares the true story of the Exonerated 5. Salaam was only 15 years old when he went to prison and was exonerated when the actual assailant confessed to the Central Park rape. 

DAAS Program Associate Elizabeth James began the event with an acknowledgment of the Union occupying formerly tribal land. MESA staff Leslie Tetteh and Saveri Nandigama then gave the welcoming address. Three poets performed before Salaam was introduced to the audience with a standing ovation. 

Salaam engaged with the audience as he walked across the stage multiple times to address the large crowd. He shared stories about the effects prison had on his life and how he grew through his incarceration. 

Salaam said an important part of his identity is his religion and he spoke about how Islam helped him grow into a leader during and after his time in prison.  The presence of his religion made others aware of his character.

“Six months in jail, this officer asked me a question that seemed basic,” Salaam said. “He said ‘Hey there, who are you? ‘I’ve been watching you. You are not supposed to be here. Who are you?’”

LSA freshman Temilolu Yusuf told The Daily she enjoyed hearing Salaam talk about the role of religion in his journey through prison. 

“I love the fact that he really incorporated religion and the role of religion in his incarceration process as well as his exoneration,” Yusuf said. “He really shows that for some things in life, that you really need that belief and support system… Even in prison, where many people use religion as a way to bring themselves up and not feel like prisoners, feel like they have control over themselves. It was amazing to see that he’s telling us, as people who have never been in prison, that religion is something that you shouldn’t only have when your back is against the wall. You should have it all the time.”

During his speech, Salaam also discussed how, in the 1980s, President Donald Trump, a prominent business figure in New York at the time, wanted the five teenagers to be sentenced to the death penalty only two weeks after their arrest. Salaam discussed the horrific statements Trump made about them and his reaction when Trump became president. Salaam spoke about Trump while holding up a copy of an advertisement Trump paid for in the New York Times.

“In a country where you think you are innocent until proven guilty,” Salaam said. “In a country where Dr. King said we live in two Americas: divided and unequal … Then you turn on the news and you realize, this can’t be right. You mean the man who called for our death. The man who was the fire starter. The man who writes in the papers that we should just take the eldest one and hang him from a tree in Central Park … That he will become the President of the United States. I wondered what God was doing.”

Public Health sophomore Aysiah White told The Daily she appreciated Salaam talk about his personal experience and how it has impacted his life’s work. 

“My favorite part about the event was Dr. Salaam being vulnerable and sharing his voice,” White said. “It takes a lot for a person to stand in front of a whole crowd and to tell their story, especially one as personal as his. So I was just very appreciative that he took time to actually tell his part of his story.”

A panel following the keynote speech featured five panelists who contributed to the Black History Month narrative. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, associate professor of American Culture, moderated the discussion and asked the panelists questions about hope, abolitionism and the impact of incarceration on families. 

A student asked the panel about unconscious racial bias and how to interact with people who present those attitudes towards people of color. In response, Erin Keith, staff attorney for the Detroit Justice Center, said unconscious bias is a reaction to Black people being able to thrive through centuries of injustice.

“Black people are in the future,” Keith said. “(People with unconscious bias) are afraid because they are wondering how we are still here, how are we still standing. No matter what anyone says, we are still gonna be in the future.”

LSA senior Nando Felten said he appreciated the multiple perspectives on the panel and the empowerment of Black people as the future of America. Felten said hearing Public Policy junior Cydney Garner Brown and Cozine Welch of the Prison Creative Arts Project speak on the panel was especially moving.

“My favorite part was just seeing the panel, seeing Cydney Garner Brown on stage with people that have served,” Felton said. “Cozine served 20 years in prison and that’s pretty much as long as (I’ve) been alive and seeing how he’s still here. He’s a director of different organizations and seeing the impact that these people are making on the world is amazing. The final ending part of how they said that Black people are in the future was just amazing and touching.”

Reporter Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu


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