Member of Exonerated Five turned anger into activism

Advocate for criminal justice reform talks to UChicago audience about perseverance, staying true to yourself

Kevin D. Richardson was 14 when he was arrested, ultimately spending seven years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit.

Throughout that time and after, he and four friends arrested with him were vilified widely as predatory Black teenagers who beat and sexually assaulted a white woman jogger in New York City’s Central Park in 1989.

More than 30 years after the infamous “Central Park Five” arrests (as they came to be known in the media), Richardson—the speaker at the 2023 Harris School of Public Policy’s George E. Kent Lecture—has transformed his nightmarish experience into activism.

An advocate for criminal justice reform who travels the country in service of that cause, Richardson has partnered with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit working against wrongful convictions and supporting a fair justice system. He contributed to an acclaimed Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, about his ordeal. Syracuse University has established a scholarship in his name for people of color lacking college resources.

And he has re-cast the Central Park Five as the Exonerated Five.

Through all the upheaval, Richardson has managed to develop a sense of humor about what could have been a debilitating, even fatal, ordeal for the five men.

“It’s a little joke I say,” Richardson told about 200 people in the Harris Family Foundation Forum at the Keller Center in April. “We’re like New Edition,” the popular R&B boy band of the 1980s. “We’re great together but we all have our own careers as well.”

During the 90-minute event, Richardson answered questions from Samantha Taylor and Cyrah Gayle, Co-Political Chairs of the Organization of Black Students, and fielded inquiries from the audience. The three panelists covered a range of subjects that included his perspectives on his life’s journey and inter-generational trauma, advice for Black students and thoughts on how to humanize white people’s misperception of Black boys.

Named for one of the first Black professors at UChicago, the annual Kent Lecture launched in 1984 and is hosted by the Organization of Black Students in partnership with the Harris School of Public Policy. Previous speakers have included Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikki Giovanni and Ilyasah Shabazz.

Early in his conversation, Richardson spoke of his mother raising him and his four sisters in a Baptist household in Harlem, and he recalled the anger he carried after he was taken from that home and incarcerated.

Carrying anger

“There was a time when I was in prison,” Richardson said, “when I looked at my mom and said, ‘Mom, why would God do this?’ She said, ‘Boy, don’t you ever question the man upstairs.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

The line drew laughter, but Richardson acknowledged that his anger with God caused him to lose his faith and that it has taken him decades to understand what his mother has told him: he was put here to do something important.

“I had to learn to hold that aggression and channel it into something positive,” Richardson said. “After that happened to me, I was like, ‘This happened to me; what are we going to do now?’ Just now, at 48, I feel like my life has just begun.”

The case of the Central Park Five is a flashpoint in America’s race history. Media coverage of the brutal crime was intense, sparking a firestorm of debate between those who portrayed the boys as brutal criminals and those contending that the five were railroaded.

Built on precarious evidence—the absence of physical proof linking the boys to the attack and coerced confessions were two examples—the prosecution’s case was surrounded by skepticism even after the five were convicted in 1990.

A more thorough investigation in 2002 discredited key evidence. Then a man serving a prison sentence for other violent crimes confessed. His DNA matched that from the crime.

Richardson and his four friends—Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—were exonerated that year, filed a lawsuit, and received a $41 million settlement from New York City in 2014.

Working through pain

Richardson’s reconstituted faith, strong relationships and counseling helped him navigate his journey, as did a 2012 Ken Burns documentary on the case and working with Ava DuVernay, producer and director of the 2019 miniseries. Oprah Winfrey also helped by hosting a TV special on the case in which the five men spoke in depth about their experiences.

Watching the series and documentary in production and in their final format were wrenching but necessary for the men to process their trauma, Richardson said.

“Having that shared experience that nobody else can know about but us,” he said, “to be there together … and to be living, to be here talking to you all, it’s a blessing within itself.”

Taylor and Gayle asked about the larger implications of Richardson’s journey and expressed that his experience and the miniseries demonstrate that the oppression of the Black community has evolved into a flawed criminal justice system and mass incarceration. The miniseries also provided a vivid example of inter-generational trauma, Taylor said.

That observation resonated with Richardson, who noted that his mother received threatening phone calls, among other abuse, over the years.

“When I was in prison,” he said, “I was there physically doing the sentence, but my family did the sentence, as well, on the outside.”

The exchange led Gayle to ask what a just society looks like and what can be done to contribute to it. Richardson said not everyone needs to be an activist, but they should be active.

“You do have to be present,” Richardson said. “You do have to show up and show out, in a good way.”

More people of all races need to engage in reform and use their intellect to accomplish their objectives, he said. Also, more people of color need to participate and “occupy all spaces in every way. We need people in offices who know what we look like and know how we feel.”

As an example, he noted that one of the Exonerated Five, Salaam, is a candidate for the New York City Council.

In response to questions about how Black students at UChicago can stay grounded and connect with and support marginalized communities a few blocks from campus, Richardson said it’s important to “speak the truth and stay firm in what you believe in and be unapologetic about it. Do what you have to do... even if it changes people’s perception of you.

“You have to unmute the uncomfortable,” Richardson added. “So we can be heard; so we can be seen. We have to work harder to do that.”

He offered to return to the university to help achieve that support, an offer that drew applause.

Fighting injustice 

Of his own advocacy work, Richardson said he’s optimistic but realistic. Injustices similar to what he endured continue.

“Having a platform from my experience gives me the strength to do it,” he said. “It’s all about resilience, perseverance, and things of that nature. What happened to us … woke up five sleeping giants. Now, we have the platform to make our ancestors proud, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Toward the end of the interview, audience members asked about the inaccurate perceptions of Black boys as much older, aggressive and dangerous than they are in reality.

Resolving that misrepresentation starts with instilling trust in young Black males, Richardson said, and includes bringing together people “from all different walks of life to understand each other.”

Asked what advice he would give 14-year-old Kevin Richardson, he paused.

“You will encounter hardships, but you must stay true to yourself,” Richardson said. “You’re going to go through some things where you might be vilified. You might be bamboozled.  But stay true and one day you will reap the benefits of what you’ve been through.”

This story originally appeared on the Harris School of Public Policy website.