2/20/2020 Peter Durantine

Falsely Imprisoned, Yusef Salaam Lives a Life of Purpose

Near the end of his 50-minute talk at Franklin & Marshall College, Yusef Salaam offered this advice to the collegians and high school students packed into Mayser Gym: “Life happens, but you have to be able to receive it.”

Salaam was one of five teenage boys who in 1989 were falsely tried and imprisoned for the brutal rape of a young woman in New York City’s Central Park. They spent between seven to 13 years behind bars before the state vacated their convictions in 2002, when Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, confessed to the crime.

“Our challenge is to live a life as full as we can so we can die in peace,” Salaam told the audience at the Feb. 20 Common Hour, a community conversation conducted every Thursday that classes are in during the semester.

  • Salaam tells the audience at the Feb. 20 Common Hour, “Our challenge is to live a life as full as we can so we can die in peace,” Salaam tells the audience at the Feb. 20 Common Hour, “Our challenge is to live a life as full as we can so we can die in peace,” Image Credit: Deb Grove

Fifteen years old at the time of his conviction, Salaam, a poet and activist who was appointed to the board of the Innocence Project in 2018, recalled his searing experiences of being falsely accused of a crime. 

He spoke eloquently, sometimes in rap and rhyme, about false concessions, police brutality and misconduct, press ethics and bias, race and law and an American justice system that he called “alive and sick.” 

“Imagine, you read the 13th Amendment [of the U.S. Constitution], and you’ve probably read it many times, but you read it anew, and you read that, hold on, what, for the punishment of a crime, they can turn you back into a slave?” Salaam said. “So, you mean to tell me that slavery was abolished, but not for  … [me].”

He recalled the terrible moments of his trial, when, having been convicted, he could address the court, and the inspiration his mother offered him. 

“Some people said that I could seek the least amount of time possible, to throw myself on the mercy of the court,” Salaam said. “But my mother, my teacher … she was teaching me about life; she said there was a classroom that extended beyond the classroom called the classroom of life.”

Six months into his prison sentence, a corrections officer asked him a simple question that Salaam said “changed the trajectory of my life. … “He said to me, ‘Who are you?’” Salaam identified himself by name and was astonished by the reply.

“To my surprise in this relationship that was supposed to be adversarial, this officer says to me, ‘I know that. I’ve been watching you. You’re not supposed to be here. Why are you here? Who are you?’”

Salaam said he searched and found the answer to that question. “Determined not to die in prison, I decided to do the time.” He read voraciously, studied hard, and when finally released from prison, he still encountered obstacles, but he found the opportunity to live a successful life.

To receive life, he said, you have to meet the challenges that allow you to “tell people they can live a life of purpose.”

Salaam concluded with one of his poems: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

By Yusef Salaam

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
I can remember when that statement made me sad inside
Too young to be in it…
Now I couldn’t even see it?
Why?
why couldn’t the revolution be televised?
The Last Poets
Gil Scott Heron 
As I grew up I began to see 
They left theirs 
and I too 
wanted to leave a mark on History
A Man in half 
and I wanted to bask 
in the task that set men free 
But a revolution, The Revolution!!! is where I knew I had to be.

The Revolution will not be televised
They don’t want to display the victory of those quote unquote “Lesser Men”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Smile 
I know  
because I am the revolution. 

 

 

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