The Ebenezer Baptist Church and its pastor The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock opened its doors to the public on Monday for a night of worship and a discussion on ending mass incarceration with members of the Central Park Five.

Themed “Let My People Go,” the worship service kicked off the church’s multi-faith “End Mass Incarceration” conference with special guests Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr., members of the Central Park Five who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989.

According to Warnock, the EMI conference was birthed from the vision of clergy, faith & community leaders, organizers, families, and others impacted by incarceration. He enlisted the activism of rapper T.I.—born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.—as well as “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander.

The goal of the three-day conference was to equip the community with practical tools to dismantle the systems and structures that undergird the industry of mass imprisonment, he explained.

“Cash bail, or wealth-based detention, is one cog in the massive wheel and machinery of mass incarceration crushing poor people every day,” Warnock said. “We have joined with faith leaders and human rights activists from all across our nation to say, “This must end.’

“And, so must America’s prison industrial complex, by far, the largest in the world,” he continued.  “We are better than this. That’s what this conference is all about.”

For Salaam and Santana, it is an honor to be known now as the “Exonerated Five” as it now shines a light on a new path and trajectory, especially after being told they were “worthless” and the “scum of the earth.”

“We had to remind ourselves that we’re Kings! We’re worthy,” Salaam said.

Warnock started the service with speeches and songs of worship as Santana made his way into the church’s massive sanctuary. Salaam and Santana, who both now reside in Georgia, spoke on how they were able to cope mentally and spiritually after they were acquitted.

Ava Duvernay’s recent Netflix docu-series, “When They See Us,” has shined a new light on the case, which cost Salaam, Santana and three other youth a significant portion of their lives after being wrongly convicted for the assault and rape of a female jogger in Central Park.

On April 19, 1989, the names of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam, now known as the “Exonerated 5,” spread like wildfires throughout the state of New York.

DNA presented at trial failed to connect the boys to the crime, but still, all were found guilty by a jury. In 2002, the five men were exonerated after the real perpetrator of the crime, serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed.

Ebenezer Baptist Church presented Salaam, Santana, Richardson, McCray, and Wise with its Freedom Fighter Award. As the churchgoers gave the two men who spoke on behalf of their brothers a standing ovation, Salaam and Santana said they found pride in being able to stand in their innocence.

“You go through many ups and downs when you question your spirituality because you say why me? Why is this happening to me? But once I got exonerated, everything changed,” Santana said. “The man upstairs didn’t give me one blessing, he gave me several, back to back, and that includes my strength and spirituality along the way.”

For Salaam, he said his belief in God becomes even more magnified because he started to read more about God while incarcerated. “I began to read more about what it was I was supposed to be doing, and it grounded me to know that everything happens for a purpose,” Salaam said. “It can be meant for evil, or God can mean it for good because while we were going through it, many of us lost our faith, but when I look back 30 years later, all those times I needed God to walk with me, God was carrying me,” he added.

Salaam also mentioned that God allowed him to smell his roses while he’s alive as opposed “to them (people) bringing them to me when I’m expired.” “God allowed us to be alive in a time where our truth came out in 2002, 13 years after we were wrongfully convicted,” he said.

Santana admitted that the beginning of the trial “was a tsunami.”

According to Salaam, over 400 articles were written about the young men. Salaam said his mother Sharonne Salaam once told him when the truth came to light, “it was a whisper, and she wondered if the rats in New York City had heard.”

While many know their stories now, Salaam also said that he and Santana have gone to speak in front of young people, who have wondered if the Central Park Five were a music group. However, he doesn’t blame the youth, but the system for their disservice.

Said Salaam, “The system wants people to forget so much that they’ve tried to erase the scars of what it was to be known as the Central Park Five.”

Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park Five, speaks at a press conference hosted at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Itoro Umontuen / The Atlanta Voice)

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