Daleel Jabir Muhammad
NEW YORK—A day to acknowledge social injustice, struggle, and pain that led to vindication, joy, celebration, and commemoration with the “Gate of the Exonerated” took place just before 2022 ended. The monument marked the plight of five young Black teens who were known in 1989 as the Central Park Five, now known as freedom fighters for justice for the wrongfully incarcerated, the Exonerated Five.
Speakers reflected on the Central Park jogger rape case in 1989 that falsely accused and convicted five youths: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana. These teenagers were 14 and 15 years old at the time and were pressured and coerced under interrogation by officers without any physical evidence, legal representation or even having their parents present.
They served seven to 11 years in prison. Their convictions were overturned in 2002 after a convicted serial rapist confessed to being the only one responsible for the gruesome attack on that day in Central Park.
Twenty years later December 19, 2022, marked the 20th anniversary of the exoneration and a historical marker and exhibit was unveiled at the newly commissioned “Gate of The Exonerated” in Central Park, on W. 110th Street between 5th and Lenox Avenues in Harlem.
“We remember the people in the struggle, who when this happened, we didn’t have to explain what was going on,” said Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusef Salaam, who recounted some of the names of the early supporters like the December 12th Movement (D12), CEMOTAP (Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive To African People) and the Nation of Islam.
“You never know the road you will be pushed down but these and others like Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Al Sharpton, C. Vernon Mason and Elombe Brath had gave us support and strength from the beginning,” she recalled. Giving glory to God and thanking the mothers and supporters who could not be there to witness the unveiling of the Gate of the Exonerated, Ms. Salaam said, “This movement will continue to help others in this struggle and to bring justice for the wrongfully accused,” she added.
“This gate means that we will be remembered as The Exonerated Five and not the Central Park Five. It means that all of us in this community we can feel uplifted knowing the struggle and the perseverance that took place to get to this momenta, Ms. Salaam said.
Bringing greetings of love and unity from the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, Student Minister Arthur Muhammad from Muhammad Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, recalled the friendship of knowing young Yusef Salaam in the early days and knowing of his interest in Islam, that he couldn’t be guilty of what he was accused of doing.
“I knew Yusef as a kind young man, pure and innocent at heart. So, I knew the media was lying,” Minister Muhammad said. “We thank God that the Exonerated Five turned their pain into a campaign. And we cannot forget those who died in jail that did not get exonerated.
We can’t forget those who are languishing in the jails right now, who have not been exonerated. As a result, this gate shines a light on the criminal justice system that has been criminal to all of us. It is a reminder that the criminal justice system is a sad story for Black and Brown men and women in this city and in this country.”
Attorney Roger Wareham, one of the lawyers who represented the young men back in 1989, reminded the audience at the news conference of the contributions of a great warrior, now an ancestor, Elombe Brath, founder of The Patrice Lumumba Coalition and a founder of the December 12th Movement, who brought attention to the confession of Matias Reyes to follow up with demonstrations and to put pressure on then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to exonerate the young men.
“This exoneration did not happen without pressure,” Mr. Wareham said. “The reason why they are exonerated is a people’s victory. We know that this judicial system does not do anything without pressure. It could not have happened without the demonstrations and the pressure that was put on city government. It did not happen without pressure; as Fred Hampton once said: where there’s people there is power! Where there is people there is power! This gate is tied to that. Power to the people!”
Yusef Salaam emphasized the importance of the occasion. “This is a legacy moment at this sacred time and at this sacred place because we persevered under the stress and pain of being written off by our enemies in the newspapers, receiving hate mail and being called the scum of the earth because of the color of our skin,” he said. “This is a legacy moment, for generations to come to bring justice and break generational curses.”
Raymond Santana echoed the point of persevering. “This shows what happens when you don’t give up, that you can overcome any obstacles in your way. This gate represents new beginnings. It represents leaving a legacy. It represents that we now have a foundation and a stake in our own community,” he said.
“We have been through hell and back,” Kevin Richardson exclaimed. “This has brought back mixed emotions from three decades ago. But now that I have children, they can see that it’s OK to be in this park, which I avoided bringing them to until today. It is different to be recognized for this occasion and to pay it forward for the next generation because this is bigger than all of us.”
Antron McCray and Korey Wise could not make the unveiling but were remembered wholeheartedly by the various speakers in attendance.
Many of the supporters like the Central Park Conservancy, the Exonerated Five Task Force, The Innocence Project, Justice For the Wrongfully Incarcerated group, the Nation of Islam, elected officials, community activists and Harlem Community Board Number 10 made this landmark possible, while enduring trials and revisions placed upon them for nearly three years to pass the resolution in support of the permanent commemoration of the Exonerated Five in Central Park.
“This has, indeed, been a major war to assure that the Gate of the Exonerated be installed and unveiled in Central Park. For the first time, after over 160 years, a new gate is commissioned on this site, not far from where Seneca Village once stood. The Gate of the Exonerated is a step that will speak volumes for years to come and this is a huge statement for Black and Brown people, who are the majority of incarcerated in America,” stated Terri Wisdom, taskforce member and director of HNN news.
District Manager Shatic Mitchell from CB10 thanked everyone for their cooperation in finally bringing the memorial to fruition.
“Unfortunately, we must remember and always be aware that there still remains those in the prisons across America who are still looking to be exonerated. We have to continue to advocate for the voiceless and those who are wrongfully accused. This struggle will never end but we now have this historical gate of the exonerated for future generations to see that the struggle continues,” he concluded.
Learn more about the struggle to exonerate others who are wrongfully incarcerated by visiting: www.gateoftheexonerated.org, www.J4WI.org or www.innocenceproject.org
—Daleel Jabir Muhammad