Monday, Jan. 20 marked the 34th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration hosted by Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University and Davenport University.
Following opening remarks from GRCC President Bill Pink, GVSU President Philomena V. Mantella, and Davenport President Richard J. Pappas, amongst others, B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at GRCC, introduced Yusef Salaam.
The eagerly awaited keynote speaker and member of the exonerated Central Park Five, walked up on stage with his iPhone in hand, filming the uproarious applause from the crowd. Salaam’s speech began with a brief retelling of the events that unfolded around the time of his conviction.
“Huge debates have gone on, but the Central Park Jogger case was something that I (wasn’t) supposed to survive. They gave us a death sentence. You know how I know? Donald J. Trump,” Salaam said as the crowd grew uncomfortably quiet, save for one audience member who “boo’ed” rather loudly. “Two weeks after we were accused; 14, 15, and 16-year-old babies, two weeks after we were accused, this business icon, this real estate mogul, this person who was allowed to rub shoulders with some of our excellence in the black and brown communities took out this full page ad calling for the state to kill us.”
While holding a copy of the very ad that Trump ran, he noted that Trump is “only a symptom and not the disease.”
Salaam stated that he and the other teens unjustly implicated in the Central Park Jogger case had their names, phone numbers, and addresses published in “all of New York cities newspapers.” An influx of hate mail was subsequently sent to Salaam and his family. Some of which he preserved and had with him at the podium. The language was upsetting and detestable.
“Your son should be fried in oil. He and you suck,” read one letter. “You deserve, at least, to die. I hope you are tortured like no other being is tortured. You are a waste and cannot possibly be one of God’s creatures,” another stated. There were numerous other notes with similar rhetoric.
Even following his return home from prison the fear he felt while behind bars followed him. Salaam remarked that he felt the need to “hide in plain sight.”
Despite the horribly challenging subject matter, a message of redemption, hope and gratitude was interwoven throughout Salaam’s presentation.
“The Central Park Jogger case is actually a love story between God and his people,” Salaam explained. “It’s a story of a criminal system of injustice, turned on its side and put on trial in order to produce a miracle in modern time.”
Despite the plethora of challenges The Central Park Five faced, according to Salaam, much good came from the ordeal as well.
Salaam recalled an interaction he had with a prison officer that was profoundly simple, yet profoundly impactful in his life. The officer asked, “Who are you?” and caused Salaam to ponder, to reflect, to question. That discussion left a lasting impression.
Still on the topic of identity, Salaam went on to discuss the significance of the prison number he was assigned.
“They gave me the number 95A1113,” Salaam described. “This number signified that I was introduced into the adult facility in 1995. That I was introduced into the adult facility in the first half of the year… that number that came next signified that I was the 1,113 person to enter the door and it was February 27.”
Salaam repeatedly commented on his faith and the influence he believes God has.
“God is really trying to tell us, through the examples of Dr. Martin Luther King, through the examples of Malcom X, through the examples of countless others who have gone before, that we, too, need to rise to the occasion. We have to do everything that we can do in order to free us. Because the true battle has never been between black and white people. The true battle has always been the battle in spiritual wickedness in high and low places.”
About halfway through his presentation, Salaam received a phone call from Raymond Santana, another member of the wrongly convicted Central Park Five. After asking the audience if he should answer the call, Salaam began to talk to Santana on speaker phone.
“Hey Ray,” Salaam said, to which Santana replied, “What’s going on, bro?” Santana proceeded to converse with Salaam, not aware that Salaam was on a stage in front of hundreds of people.
“I answered your phone call in a church doing a presentation in front of a sea of people that love us,” Salaam interrupted Santana. The audience, once again, cheered loudly, as if to agree with the statement.
Upon ending the conversation, Salaam continued with his prepared presentation, not missing a beat.
“Be careful who you allow to define your reality for yourself,” Salaam cautioned.
On numerous occasions, Salaam alluded to the idea that ‘evil’ is invading our lives and attempting to ruin us. However, he stated that God was a God of peace and goodness, the one who could combat such evil.
“Somehow the evil eye has been casting its idea and broad-brushstroking the families and communities that we know and love, leaving gaping holes in the fabric of the fiber of the human family,” he said.
Salaam noted that The Black Panther Group was influential during his time behind bars. He recounted a conversation with an inmate and member of the group.
“He said, ‘You are safe. We are members of The Black Panther Party. We are members of the Black Liberation Army,’” Salaam said, quoting the fellow inmate. “‘If anyone touches you, we will shut this place down. You are a political prisoner. We are happy you are here with us.’”
Salaam reflected on just how much the partnership and community he found within that prison group shaped him. He later told The Collegiate that there was an important detail he had forgotten to mention during his speech.
“That same Black Panther member, when he told me that, I looked at the number on his jacket. He had been in prison longer than I was alive and he never came home,” Salaam recalled.
As Salaam concluded his presentation, his parting remark was concise and direct.
“You can’t reverse the mistake. That kind of injustice is not an anomaly. It has been apart of American history and probably as American as apple pie. But we have to do everything in our power to ensure that our children grow up in a world that gives us true justice, true liberty, true happiness, true freedom, and true equality.”
Audience members of the well-attended event offered their takeaways following the speech.
“We thank him for his time. We thank him for sharing his story. He’s a beautiful man inside and out,” said 24-year-old Asiah Aghniettia, adding,”It was really, really nice just to see him in person. I hope he knows he had a really big impact on a lot of people.”
A major in social work at GRCC, Jadrien Vidro-Wright, 20, appreciated Salaam’s vulnerable and touching message.
“It touched base on a lot of real life situations that are still ongoing,” Vidro-Wright said. “It was very inspiring to see how he still had a positive mindset through all the stuff that he was put through… He preached how God is very helpful and very real and all we have to do is just keep faith. Everything has a plan, as they say. God always has a plan for us.”
Co-Editor-in-Chief Lucas Southwell and Multimedia Editor Sabrina Edwards contributed to this report.