‘The spike wheels of justice:’ Yusef Salaam gives Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture


CW / Keely Brewer

Yusef Salaam stood confidently before a captivated audience, waiting for a reprieve from a pause that felt eternal. For 25 seconds, the stray jingle of keys and items clattering to the ground were the only sounds piercing the calming quiet. Salaam was used to the crowd, and the quiet. But, this time, the only thing that echoed was a light cough. 

The excitement was almost tangible in the Ferguson Student Center’s ballroom on Monday night, as Salaam, a poet, activist, and inspirational speaker took the stage for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture. 

“Y’all do know y’all look amazing right?” Salaam said, eliciting a collective chuckle and warm grins from the audience. “May the peace and mercy and blessings of the owner of peace, mercy and blessings be upon you.”

Salaam is recognized as a member of “The Exonerated Five” –  the name derived from the rape of a young white woman that took place on April 19, 1989, in New York’s Central Park. Five Harlem, New York, teens ranging from ages 14 to 16, including Salaam (who was 15 at the time), were accused and tried for the crime. 

“You know, in 1989 the spike wheels of justice ran over me,” Salaam said staring down at his shoes. “Laid me out flat, came back a second time around and ran over me again.”

After being bailed out, Salaam thought justice was on his side. But, that was not the case. In 1990, he was brought back to trial and was grouped with two other members of the Central Park Five, Antron McCray and Raymond Santana. 

“I heard the word ‘guilty’ echo so many times that I lost count,”  Salaam said as he glanced out into the distance, replaying the moment in his head. 

As the trial continued, the boys were referred to as “The Central Park Five” in the media and were wrongfully convicted of the crime. Before Salaam was read his sentence, the judge asked if he had any last comments.

“They asked me if I had anything to say before they sentenced me,” Salaam said to the crowd on Monday, picking up his book and walking to the opposite side of the stage. “I rose to my feet … I began to see what they saw, and as I rose, they began to shrink right before me.” 

Salaam then opened his book, “Words of a Man: My Right to Be,” and proceeded to perform a rap without faltering. It was as if he was back in his childhood room, practicing for his future as a hip-hop artist, like Nas or KRS One. It was as if he was inside the courtroom again. 

“I’m not going to sit here at your table and watch you eat and call myself dinner,” Salaam said, remembering the first line of a rap he gave to a full courtroom, a courtroom that wanted him guilty. “Sitting here at your table doesn’t make me dinner, just like being here in America doesn’t make me an American.”

In that courtroom, if only for a second, the media admired Salaam. They asked for pictures of his written rap, and he reluctantly agreed. But, the fanfare didn’t last for long. The boys were sent to jail and served sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years. Salaam was sentenced 5 to 10 years in prison. He served six years and eight months. 

“Going to jail for a crime that you didn’t commit is like losing a loved one,” Salaam said. “And you’ll still be there tomorrow. You’ll wake up, and you’ll think it was a nightmare.” 

Although Salaam’s lecture was on serious topics of the justice system and his personal journey since the Central Park incident, he found ways to make his speech appealing to his young audience. He made small jokes and gestures and even mentioned hip-hop artists, such as Cardi B, and the late-professional basketball legend, Kobe Bryant. 

During his lecture, Salaam credited his mother, who is from Birmingham, Alabama, for teaching him about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Like his hero Malcolm X, Salaam practices Islam, and while in jail, he learned more about his faith and himself. 

“I didn’t know that Yusef is the Arabic equivalent to the word Joseph in the bible,” Salaam said before he told the audience the meaning of his name. 

Salaam joked about how people would ‘butcher’ his name by saying Joseph, no matter how many ways and times Yusef would repeat his name. He went on to tie his name into the biblical character.

“They sent [Joseph] to jail for rape; I was sent to jail for rape,” Salaam said as he clenched the microphone with both of his hands. “His name was Yusef.”

Salaam was dumbfounded to learn that his parents would name him after this character, and he had to learn more.

“I found out Yusef didn’t only mean Joseph, but that Yusef meant, ‘God will increase,’” Salaam said proudly. “I found out that Adris meant ‘the teacher.’ I found out that Faadel is ‘with justice’ and that Salaam means ‘peace.’”

Salaam expresses the profound moment of learning the true meaning of his name, “God will increase the teacher with justice and peace,” within six months of his bid. He also expressed to the audience his relationship with God. 

“I prayed so much that I sometimes fell asleep and woke up and I was still kneeling,” Salaam said. 

Salaam let the audience know that he did not see his time of imprisonment as a burden, but as a learning time. He said that his growth in his religion would not have happened if it were not for his imprisonment. 

“Everybody in America wants the American dream,” he said. “There’s some of us that wake up to the American nightmare.” 

In 2014 Salaam and the other members of the Central Park Five filed a lawsuit against the city of New York for discrimination and emotional distress. They won the settlement cumulatively for $41 million. 

“Instead of a social death, we emerged like a phoenix from the ashes, [be]cause as they built the fire to consume us …” Salaam said, pausing once again to scan the room. “They forgot the owner of the heat.”

Applause filled the room, and Salaam stood, listening to the echo.

After his lecture concluded, the floor was opened to the audience for a Q&A. Farrah Sanders, a senior majoring in news media, asked Salaam about how he felt about the changed views of politicians and the media from when they were on trial to their exoneration. 

“We say ‘Politricks’,” Salaam glanced down at the student. “What’s important is us understanding that we are the people. When we let people into political office, a lot of times we forget what they have been elected for. We need to hold them accountable. If we fail to hold them accountable, then we get what we get.”

The sponsors for this event were the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, School of Social Work, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, UA Law School and University Programs. Demarcus Joiner, the SGA’s vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, said it was an honor to begin DEI Week with Salaam’s lecture.

“I’m overjoyed with the number of students that turned out to the event,” he said. “I was very encouraged by Mr. Salaam’s lecture and blessed to be able to meet him. I’m glad that other students and members of our campus community were also afforded that opportunity. It was a privilege to collaborate with Dr. [Christine] Taylor on such an influential event. “