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TheRootDC
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Posted at 09:49 AM ET, 06/18/2012

Rodney King dies: Was he a civil rights hero?

Clinton Yates is the local editor for Express and a contributor to TheRootDC.

As rumors continue to swirl around Sunday’s death of Rodney King, the debate rages on about whether or not his place in history is up there with the likes of Rosa Parks or Emmett Till. 

Soon after King’s death was announced, Al Sharpton issued a statement saying, "Rodney King was a symbol of civil rights and he represented the anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling movement of our time. Through all that he had gone through with his beating and his personal demons he was never one to not call for reconciliation and for people to overcome and forgive."

Sharpton is absolutely right. 

King apparently drowned at his home in Rialto, Calif., according to local police. His fiancee called 911 early Sunday morning, saying that she had discovered King at the bottom of his swimming pool. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A preliminary investigation showed no signs of foul play.

It’s easy to dismiss King as an addict, a criminal and eventually a bit of a caricature of himself. When compared to the likes of civil rights leaders in history, King doesn’t fit the mold the you read about in school. He didn’t lead a life of activism. He wasn’t a pastor. And he never ran for office. King was a construction worker with a substance abuse problem. Plainly, Rodney King was America’s first reality television star.

Indeed, the Internet was ablaze yesterday with commentary about how King was nothing but a two-bit criminal.

The man was regularly parodied in the media, and his plea for peace during the 1992 L.A. riots was widely mocked as an absurdist ideal that only a fool would consider possible. It was unfair and opportunistic.

King was being honest. He knew that he was dealing with just as much on the inside as those destroying buildings outside were. 

The riots didn’t teach me one bit about police brutality. I didn’t need a videotape shot from a window to tell me that getting a beatdown from an officer was as likely as getting directions if I was lost. I was lucky enough to have a mom for that. 

In my eyes, Rodney King was most definitely a civil rights hero. But not in the context of what you may regard as heroism. Rodney King never acted like he was holier than thou. He didn’t act as if his role in that 1991 beating somehow made him more apt to pass judgment on others for their behavior. He, in fact, rebuffed the role and never appreciated other people for trying to make him something he wasn’t.

Did he chase fortune in goofy, somewhat unseemly ways late in his life? Certainly. The man needed money. But, he never acted like he deserved a place in the history books. I’ve always respected that.

There won’t be any streets named after Rodney King. Or libraries, schools or parks. His contributions to this nation didn’t necessarily qualify him as a leader, but that doesn’t mean his example is not one to be followed. Though his actions were often ugly, his willingness to address his addictions and shortcomings was quite commendable.

And that’s why to me he’ll always be an enduring figure. When you look back at Rodney King, think of that family member or friend you knew who could never shake his or her demons. Reflect on that person in your life who never really excelled for reasons you’ll never understand. 

Maybe if more of us were straight up with ourselves and others about who we are, as King tried to be, maybe then his iconic request would make sense.

Maybe then, we all could get along.

By  |  09:49 AM ET, 06/18/2012

 
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