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Central Park Five Member to Deliver UM Black History Month Keynote

Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park Five, whose exoneration after nearly seven years of incarceration based on false accusations was depicted in the Emmy Award-winning Netflix miniseries “When They See Us,” is the keynote speaker for Black History Month observances at the University of Mississippi.

Yusef Salaam, who was exonerated after nearly seven years of incarceration based on false accusations in New York, is the keynote speaker for Black History Month observances Feb. 25 at the University of Mississippi. Submitted photo

Salaam’s address begins at 6 p.m. Feb. 25 in the Ole Miss Student Union Ballroom. Admission is free, but tickets must be obtained from the Ole Miss Box Office in the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

“When the university selected ‘Just Mercy’ as its Common Read, the book sparked deep and honest discussions about equity and justice,” said Norris “EJ” Edney III, director of the UM Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement. “I think that the ‘exonerated five’s’ story, Dr. Salaam’s story, is similarly layered with complex lessons about the realities of our justice system.”

Edney said he hopes that all members of the university community will take advantage of this opportunity to hear from Salaam.

“My hope is that this keynote gives students yet another opportunity to learn and think critically about the relationship between and equity and justice,” Edney said. “The students, faculty, staff, community members and stakeholders of the University of Mississippi are leaders who all share responsibility for shaping our collective future and history.

“The important moment in history in Dr. Salaam’s story gives us a chance to question what we will do with that responsibility.”

On April 19, 1989, a woman was raped, beaten and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. Five boys – four black and one Latino – were tried and convicted of the crime in a frenzied case that rocked the city. The five, including Salaam, became known collectively as the Central Park Five.

But in 2002, a convicted murderer and serial rapist confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence found at the scene corroborated his story. The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated, after the four teens had spent six to seven years behind bars and the one tried as an adult had been incarcerated for 14 years.

Salaam was just 15 years old when his life was upended.

Since his release, Salaam has committed himself to advocating and educating people on the issues of false confessions, police brutality and misconduct, press ethics and bias, race and law, and the disparities in America’s criminal justice system. In 2013, documentarians Ken and Sarah Burns released the documentary “The Central Park Five,” which told of the story from the perspective of Salaam and his cohorts.

In 2014, the five men received a multimillion-dollar settlement from the city of New York for its grievous injustice against them. Salaam was awarded an honorary doctorate from Anointed by God Ministries that same year and received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 from President Barack Obama.

Salaam was appointed to the board of the Innocence Project in 2018.

In May 2019, Netflix released a limited series called “When They See Us,” based on the story of the Central Park Five and directed by Ava DuVernay, with Oprah Winfrey and Robert DeNiro among the executive producers. The four-part series was screened at Ole Miss beginning in January.

For a full list of sponsors for the speech, and for a full calendar of events in the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement’s “All In. All Year.” observance, visit https://inclusion.olemiss.edu/.

By Edwin B. Smith

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