46th Annual MLK Celebration Keynote

46th Annual MLK Celebration Keynote

Kevin Richardson

Exonerated member of the Central Park Five

Criminal Justice reform advocate

From MIT News, 13 February 2020
By David L. Chandler

Kevin Richardson
Kevin Richardson sports a T-shirt honoring the Central Park Five, 2019. Photo: Raymond Santana via Instagram

One evening in 1989, a 14-year-old Kevin Richardson headed from his home in Harlem into New York City’s Central Park to play basketball with some friends. Little did he know when he walked into that park that his life’s dreams would be shattered that evening, and that he would soon be spending seven years in prison for a crime that, as has since been proven in court, he had nothing to do with.

He spent years in a struggle to prove his innocence, along with the four other teenagers swept up by police that night who became known as the “Central Park Five.” They were accused of a horrific rape that took place that night, for which another man would, years later, eventually confess.

“I still deal with that every day,” Richardson told an MIT audience Wednesday. “We have to deal with scars that nobody can see.”

Now, legally cleared of the crime, happily married and the father of two daughters, Richardson has turned his own horrific experiences into the basis for a new calling: speaking out and organizing against injustices in the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affect people of color and particularly black men, and helping to advocate for others who, like him and his falsely accused “brothers,” are seeking to clear their names and prove their innocence.

Richardson, who is now 45, gave the keynote speech at this year’s annual MIT Martin Luther King Jr. celebration luncheon. He described the devastating effects of losing much of his youth to an unjust arrest and imprisonment, and his choice to turn that personal hardship into a tale of hope and strength for others who suffer similar injustices.

Despite the horrors of incarceration, which he said were particularly bad because being labeled as a rapist is one of the worst things for a prisoner, he refused an opportunity that might have led to his parole after five years. Despite being a model prisoner and earning a college degree in prison, he said to be released he would have had to admit to the crime he didn’t commit. But he kept going, always believing “there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Richardson gave much credit for the inner strength that helped him to endure those years to his mother and to his religious faith — although he says that faith was temporarily broken after his unjust arrest, when he couldn’t understand “why would God do this to me.” But years later, he came to feel that this was all leading him to the path that he is pursuing today, advocating justice for others: “When I got older I realized I was destined to be here. ... I was molded and sculpted to be what I am today — to speak for justice, not just for myself, not just for people of color, but for everyone.”

“I have to become a voice for the voiceless,” he said.

Introducing Richardson at the luncheon, MIT President L. Rafael Reif described him as “an individual who has suffered crushing injustice, and yet has found the courage to speak out for systemic change.”