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Celebrate and explore Black History Month with WKAR!

MSU presents 'Slavery To Freedom' lecture series with ‘Exonerated 5’ speaker Dr. Yusef Salaam

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Courtesy
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MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine
Dr. Yusef Salaam is a guest for the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine's 2022 "Slavery To Freedom" lecture series.

Editor’s Note:  You can register for Dr. Yusef Salaam’s lecture here.

Michigan State University is kicking off an annual Black History Month tradition.

On Thursday, the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine presents the first of three speakers as part of the 2022 Dr. William G. Anderson Lecture Series, “Slavery To Freedom.”

In 1989, Yusef Salaam was 15 years old when he and four other black boys were falsely arrested and imprisoned for the rape and beating of Trisha Meili, who became known as the Central Park Jogger. DNA evidence later proved their innocence. All five were exonerated, but not before Salaam served nearly seven years.

MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine Associate Dean of Diversity and Campus Inclusion Dr. Marita Gilbert spoke with WKAR’s Kevin Lavery about Yusef Salaam’s imprint on history.

Interview Highlights

On the media’s narrative of the five boys

The things that were said, the derogatory statements about these young boys…people were willing to embrace these perceptions, these narratives that were largely politically driven because they became so prevalent, right? They became ubiquitous. And so, folks were really socialized, I think, to be more willing to accept that this could be a possibility.

On the potential for more wrongful convictions

We've had advances in technology and the proliferation of organizations willing to intervene and advocate. But all of that is for naught if those who are a part of these institutions or systems are so committed to their own perceptions, to their own narratives of who black people are, of who black youth are, that they're willing to ignore facts that are contradictory to whatever idea or case they're trying to advance.

Interview Transcript

Dr. Marita Gilbert: It occurred to us as we were doing the planning for this year to think about what are the freedom movements of the day, but also what are the things that we should be thinking about in our future?

And so, we really felt like Dr. Salaam was an excellent choice to talk to us not only about his own experience, but also the freedom movement around mass incarceration, and how do we really work to interrogate how that is having its impacts, certainly in America (but) especially in black and brown communities across our country.

Kevin Lavery: In 1989, when this happened, New York was in the midst of a huge crack cocaine epidemic that largely affected young black men; not exclusively, but they were very heavily impacted. And I wonder, based on your research, if that backdrop really factored into the way the public viewed this case? Because there was so much press and attention against these five young men.

Gilbert: When you ask about the public, I think it would depend on which part of the public. The narratives that were coming out in the media seemed to be dissonant with my own experience.

And so, I remember really questioning as a young person some of the words that I was hearing. The things that were said, the derogatory statements about these young boys…people were willing to embrace these perceptions, these narratives that were largely politically driven because they became so prevalent, right? They became ubiquitous. And so, folks were really socialized, I think, to be more willing to accept that this could be a possibility.

Lavery: In the years since that incident, we have organizations like the Innocence Project. In fact, Dr. Salaam is a board member of the Innocence Project, which specializes in uncovering DNA evidence that leads a lot of people to exoneration. Of course, he and the rest of the Central Park Five were eventually exonerated after six or seven years for each of them in prison. And so I'm wondering if, because of that movement, there has been substantial, significant progress in 25 years or so to prevent wrongful convictions like his?

Gilbert: In answering your question, I think I just want to be careful to think about the fact that, yes, we've had advances in technology and the proliferation of organizations willing to intervene and advocate. But all of that is for naught if those who are a part of these institutions or systems are so committed to their own perceptions, to their own narratives of who black people are, of who black youth are, that they're willing to ignore facts that are contradictory to whatever idea or case they're trying to advance.

Lavery: This lecture and all the others that will follow will be virtual. How will you be able to measure the type of takeaway that your audience is going to get from this? Obviously, you want to make an impact with the series.

Gilbert: After last year’s series, instantly the feedback that we received was positive; that we were having more dialogues as opposed to keynote speakers. And our participants really liked that opportunity to see the folks who come as presenters and speakers in a more personal way.

They felt they were more accessible, that they felt like we were just sitting in the living room, having a conversation, which helped our audience to see the humanity but also the passion that drives these freedom movements in real time. And so, they felt more drawn in, also, by being able to participate in a dialogue. So, I’m excited about this year.

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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