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Who was Rodney King? His 1991 beating by L.A. police roiled America.

Rodney King makes a statement at a Los Angeles news conference on May 1, 1992, in which he asked for an end to violence. (David Longstreath/AP)
6 min

As Memphis and the nation brace for the Friday release of body-camera footage of the beating death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police, many Americans are remembering the video of the 1991 beating of Rodney King that sparked demonstrations against police brutality and eventually led to violence.

King, 25, was driving on a Los Angeles highway on March 3, 1991, when officers chased him and pulled him over for speeding. After he exited the car, officers seeking to subdue him fired a stun gun at him and brutally beat him. A nearby resident filmed the encounter with a camcorder, and the video played repeatedly on TV. When a California jury failed to convict the four charged officers the next year, an uprising began across parts of the Los Angeles area, ultimately leaving more than 60 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.

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As the violence escalated, King issued a plea: “Can we all get along?”

King died on June 17, 2012. His Washington Post obituary, by Emily Langer, captured how the events of March 3, 1991, transformed both his life and his country. The obituary is reprinted below, along with images of front-page stories about King and the demonstrations that engulfed Los Angeles:

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.

Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died on Jan. 10 after sustaining injuries during an encounter with Memphis police three days earlier. (Video: AP)

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.

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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?

On March 3, 1991, Mr. King was driving on a Los Angeles interstate when California Highway Patrol officers attempted to stop him for speeding. During the eight-mile high-speed chase that ensued, members of the Los Angeles police joined it and assumed control when Mr. King ultimately pulled over.

Although he got out of the car, Mr. King resisted arrest and at one point threw officers off his back.

L.A. police officers testified to their fears that Mr. King appeared to be under the influence of the drug PCP, which can unleash aggression in users.

Test results would show, however, that Mr. King had been drinking. To subdue him, the officers fired a stun gun and beat him with batons, leaving him bloodied and bruised. His cheekbone, skull bones and ankle were broken.

A nearby resident, George Holliday, was wakened by the noise and began filming the incident from his apartment balcony with a camcorder. Holliday later released the grainy footage to the news media, which played and replayed the incomplete, frequently edited footage, searing the beating into national memory.

The next year, four L.A. officers were tried in connection with the incident. The California jury, which had no Black members, acquitted three of assault charges, and a mistrial was declared for a fourth.

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“Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video,” President George H.W. Bush was quoted at the time.

Parts of Los Angeles erupted in riots, which left more than 50 people dead and more than 2,000 wounded, while hundreds of fires broke out and many businesses were looted.

As the violence continued, Mr. King emerged from his home to make an appeal:

“People, I just want to say — can we all get along? Can we get along? … We’ve got enough smog here in Los Angeles, let alone to deal with the setting of these fires and things … It’s not right, and it’s not going to change anything … We’ve got to quit.”

Those words, particularly the phrase about getting along, have become part of the popular culture and have helped to keep his name, and the events of 20 years ago, alive in American consciousness.

Rodney Glen King was born April 2, 1965, in Sacramento. He grew up in Altadena, Calif., with several brothers and sisters. For much of his life, he was known as Glen.

He had worked in construction after dropping out of school. At the time of the beating, he was a manual laborer at Dodger Stadium and was on parole from prison. He had been sentenced after pleading guilty in a robbery.

During Mr. King’s childhood and adolescence, his father had often forced Mr. King to help him with his janitorial work until 2 a.m. on school nights, sometimes beating him.

“Maybe those whuppings prepared me for Koon,” Mr. King once said, referring to Sgt. Stacey Koon, who was one of two L.A. officers ultimately convicted on federal charges of violating Mr. King’s civil rights.

Mr. King received a $3.8 million settlement from the City of Los Angeles and the police department. Much of the money was used to pay his legal fees. His memoir, “The Riot Within,” was released in April.

In the book, Mr. King acknowledged having struggled with drugs and alcohol. After the 1991 incident, he continued to have run-ins with the law, including domestic violence charges.

Mr. King’s marriages to Denetta King and Crystal Waters ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter from an early relationship, Candace; a daughter from his first marriage, Dena; and a daughter from his second marriage, Uniqua. According to news reports, he was engaged to Cynthia Kelley, a member of the jury in his civil lawsuit.

In discussing his arrest, Mr. King once told the Los Angeles Times: “I hate that it was me. I hate that it would be anybody at the center of attention like that. I wouldn’t wish that on nobody. I have to turn it around, put it behind me, which is really hard.”

But, in an interview with the paper this year, he appeared to take a longer view of the significance of his arrest.

He took the position that “it changed things.”

“It made the world a better place,” he said.