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'Central Park Five' member Yusef Salaam to appear at Illinois State University Cultural Dinner honoring Dr. King

Yusef Salaam will give the keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner at Illinois State University. Salaam will meet with students during his visit. On Wednesday, the university hosted a screening of the 2012 documentary "The Central Park Five" about Salaam and four others' stories of wrongful conviction.
Yusef Salaam
Yusef Salaam will give the keynote address Friday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner at Illinois State University. Salaam will meet with students during his visit. On Wednesday, the university hosted a screening of the 2012 documentary, "The Central Park Five," about Salaam and four others' stories of wrongful conviction.

On April 19, 1989, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise wandered into Central Park in New York City. They had followed a group of teenagers who began harassing people in the park. That’s when the boys knew it was time to go home.

Stepping into the park that night changed their lives forever — and inextricably linked them to one another. In an astounding mishandling of a brutal rape that occurred the same night, the five teenagers, the so-called Central Park Five, were coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit.

As part of Illinois State University’s week of events commemorating the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., about 50 people gathered Wednesday for a screening of the 2012 film, “The Central Park Five” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. The film chronicles the events of that night and the trials and convictions that ensued, as well as the young men’s years in prison and re-entry to civilian life.

One of the five, Yusef Salaam, is slated to appear Friday in Bloomington-Normal as the keynote speaker for Illinois State’s Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner.

Doris Houston, ISU's chief equity and inclusion officer, said it's important that students, faculty, staff and the community at large educate themselves on important societal issues.

“It’s one thing to read — and that’s absolutely important — we are an institution of higher education,” Houston said. “But to have the real-life embodiment of someone whose experience can teach us so much about issues regarding racism, equity, inclusion, policing relationships, community relationships — it’s very important to have such a renowned speaker as Dr. Salaam to visit with us.”

In addition to his address at the Cultural Dinner, Salaam will meet with select ISU students during his visit.

“His story challenges us to reflect upon our own views of those we consider the ‘other’… and put a face to someone who has experienced a real loss of innocence due to stereotyping,” Houston said.

Now called the “Exonerated Five,” the Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated in 2002 after a serial rapist incarcerated with Korey Wise admitted to the crime. The city of New York paid $41 million to settle a civil lawsuit in 2014.

Houston said Salaam’s appearance inspires the ISU and Bloomington-Normal community to overcome painful experiences to “triumph.”

“That is certainly a lesson I am thrilled for all of us to hear and revisit,” she said.

Sharrun Pickett-Shanklin drove from Country Club Hills, a south suburb of Chicago, to attend Wednesday’s film screening.

“My husband has been wrongfully convicted in Ohio,” she said. “I’m trying to gather more information on how to help him.”

Pickett-Shanklin said her husband, Ronald Shanklin, is serving a prison sentence of 28 years to life in Ohio. Shanklin maintains his innocence. Pickett-Shanklin met Thomas Gorman of Peoria in a Facebook support group and the two met for the first time in person at the screening. Gorman is a concerned citizen interested in wrongful convictions.

“I can’t stand injustice and wrongful convictions,” he said, adding he’s optimistic about the rising number of exonerations in Illinois and nationally.

“I think there’s a glimmer of hope and I think we need to inform the public that they make mistakes and hopefully they can correct mistakes,” he said.

According to a 2017 report by the National Registry of Exonerations, 47% of exonerations between 1989 and 2016 involved African American defendants. Black people also formed the majority of the 1,800 people framed and falsely convicted in 15 police scandals who were later exonerated.

Pickett-Shanklin is encouraged by ISU bringing attention to the topic of wrongful convictions, but remains wary of the legal system and disproportionate treatment of Black and brown people.

“I know that every police or detective is not a bad person,” Pickett-Shanklin said. “But I think about my son. I think about my nephews. I think about my husband.”

Friday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner is sold out. “The Central Park Five” is available on PBS. Students, faculty and staff of Illinois State University can stream the film for free through the Kanopy platform licensed by Milner Library.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.