Rodney King death sparks debate over civil rights legacy, call for peace during 1992 riots


FILE - This April 13, 2012 file photo shows Rodney King posing for a portrait in Los Angeles. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, has died, his publicist said Sunday, June 17, 2012. He was 47 (Matt Sayles/AP)
June 18, 2012

Rodney King, whose encounter with white police officers in Los Angeles in 1991 vaulted him into the national spotlight, died Sunday at his home in California. As Emily Langer reported:

Rodney King, the black motorist whose violent encounter with white Los Angeles police officers after a car chase in 1991 was captured on home video and helped prompt one of the worst race riots in U.S. history, and an abiding controversy about American justice, died June 17. He was 47.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Two decades ago, Mr. King, then 25, found himself at the center of one of the most volatile debates over race and the law since the end of the civil rights movement. To many people, especially in the black community, he became a symbol of the police brutality that had long been inflicted on African Americans.

“History will record that it was Rodney King’s beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement after Mr. King’s death.

Mr. King has become known for the words he spoke in an appeal he made during the riots that followed his arrest. “Can we all get along?” he urged. “Can we get along?

Debate spread after news of King’s death about his role and importance in the history of civil rights in America. As Clinton Yates wrote:

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. 

For many, King’s call for peace during the L.A. riots was a shining example of courage and leadership in a time of turmoil. As Melinda Henneberger reported:

You could say King was ahead of his time, because before there was YouTube or citizen journalism, camcorder footage of King, who was black, being beaten by white L.A.P.D. officers who’d stopped him for speeding was one of the first videos to go viral, in effect, on TV newscasts all over the country.

Riots exploded in South Los Angeles after a jury that included no African Americans acquitted three of those officers, and deadlocked on the fourth. In the violence that followed, thousands of people were injured and 55 died. While the city was still on fire, King stepped to the microphone and asked, “Can we all get along?”

I was then and remain in awe of all it took for him to do that. Here was a man who’d had his head beaten, his leg broken, his eye shattered. His face had been partially paralyzed during that rain of kicks and blows — 50 of them — with police batons. That he still called for peace over vengeance is pretty much the ultimate “manning up” in my book.

He didn’t always manage that; on the contrary, in 1996, he was jailed for domestic abuse, which is never OK, no matter what you’ve been through. He drank, drove too fast, and died too young. But though I know nothing about his religious beliefs, he was a person who in the moment he’ll be remembered for turned the other cheek.

“America’s been good to me,’’ he said just this year, and forgave us all over again.

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