ROAD TO REDEMPTION: Rodney King, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool on Sunday, June 17. In April, he was a featured author at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he discussed his autobiography, 'The Riot Within.' (Photo: Susan J. Rose/Newscom)
Rodney King’s untimely death over the weekend has led to a lot of conversations about his significance as a key civil rights figure. King, of course, gained fame for the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles cops that he endured and the subsequent race riot that followed in 1992 after the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. He then became an unlikely voice of reason when, in the midst of the deadly and destructive rioting, he famously asked, “Can we all just get along?” Sadly, that question still echoes today after each new racially charged issue or controversy that erupts in the media.
But what will be King’s lasting legacy? By his own admission, he was not a perfect man. In fact, drunk driving and alleged substance abuse were the reasons he was pulled over by the L.A. cops initially in 1991, and he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol apparently until the night of his death. In a Los Angeles Times post, reporter Ken Streeter recalls his series of interviews with King this year and confirms that King was still drinking and still smoking pot (he said for medical reasons).
So, King doesn’t exactly fit the classic image of the heroic civil rights icon. Yet, he stands as an important symbol in our nation’s uneasy saga of racial unrest and our stutter steps toward reconciliation.
“The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country,” Cannon explains. Indeed, under L.A. police Chief William Bratton in the 2000s, the department began focusing on community policing, hired more minority officers, and worked to heal tensions between the police and minority communities who continued to protest racial profiling and excessive use of force.
In the post-Rodney King world, adds Cannon, “It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black.”
To his credit, King was well aware of his shortcomings and shared his story in an autobiography released earlier this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. In The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, King came clean about his failures and his continued struggles with alcohol addiction, but also about how God had helped him begin to turn his life around.
In a poignant interview with the Canadian public radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, King talked about his book and expressed optimism about both his own future and the state of race relations in the United States.
What do you view as Rodney King’s legacy? What does his complicated journey say about race relations in America? Will he rightly be remembered a civil rights icon?
Good manners are “keepers of the peace,” according to a lengthy article in The Christian Science Monitor, and many Americans have “tuned out politics” because they are tired of incivility in that highly combative arena of public life.
Is Limbaugh Paying More?
Such incivility was on display last week when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law student a “slut” after she testified about contraception at a congressional hearing. Limbaugh has since been pilloried by pundits on the left and right, and numerous businesses have announced that they would no longer advertise on his radio show. On Saturday, Limbaugh issued a qualified apology, but it failed to satisfy most critics.
At The Daily Beast, Kirsten Powers joined the chorus of condemnation, but also wondered where the left’s outrage is for the misogynistic outbursts of progressive pundits Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, and Ed Schultz.
Powers said Schultz described former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a “bimbo” and called Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut,” while Keith Olbermann “has said that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp should have been aborted by her parents” and Michelle Malkin is a “mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick.” Matthews has referred to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “she-devil,” “Nurse Ratched,” “Madame Defarge,” “witchy,” “anti-male,” and “uppity,” according to Powers, and Maher has called Palin a c-nt, among other insults.
“Many feminist blogs now document attacks on women on the left and the right … but when it comes to high-profile campaigns to hold these men accountable—such as that waged against Limbaugh—the real fury seems reserved only for conservatives,” said Powers.
Debating Breitbart’s Legacy
The debate about which political bent produces the most incivility extends to notorius conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart, who died suddenly March 1 at the age of 43. While some liberals, like Arianna Huffington, offered public praise for the man who orchestrated successful media attacks against Acorn, Shirley Sherrod, and former congressman Anthony Weiner, others, like Slate’s Matt Yglesias reveled in his death.
Today, at The Root, Joel Dreyfuss said there’s been too much public praise for Breitbart.
“Avoiding speaking ill of the dead is not a reason to remain mute about an evil legacy,” said Dreyfuss. “Breitbart was an agent provocateur who lied and cheated and distorted the facts to support his right-wing political agenda. He was largely responsible for destroying ACORN, an organization that worked for decades on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. He nearly ruined the reputation of Shirley Sherrod, who had a distinguished civil rights record. Before he died, Breitbart was promising to expose unsavory information about President Obama’s college days.”
But, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat compared the legacy of Breitbart with that of respected and respectful social scientist John Q. Wilson, who also died last week.
“Wilson thrived … in precisely the kind of media-intellectual ecosystem — institutionalist, high-middlebrow, genteel — that Breitbart spent his career putting to the torch. Whether Breitbart was working for Matt Drudge or Arianna Huffington or building his own empire, his first loyalty was always to the sensational scoop, the wild-and-crazy stunt, the overcaffeinated public feud with whichever enemy happened to be hating on him. … He was a P. T. Barnum figure, at once lovable and deplorable, who embodied the online media landscape like no other figure on the right or left,” said Douthat.
“It’s easy to see the shift from Wilson’s old-media conversation to Breitbart’s new-media circus … as a straightforward story of cultural decline,” Douthat said, but he concluded that American journalism in the Internet age represents a return to form and said “a republic that survived the excesses of William Randolph Hearst can presumably survive the excesses of HuffPo and BigGovernment.com.”
Manners Empower People
It may survive, but is the republic made better or worse by incivility?
“Manners empower people to demonstrate respect for others, to avoid inflicting the unintentional insult, to defuse the kind of confusion that leads to conflict and violence. The mannerly know how to make good apologies when they mess up, as they inevitably will. And – as with the well-placed snub – they know how to deviate from convention as a means of voicing their concerns. Observers say manners and civility, in fact, form the core of an ethical life, one lived first with respect for others,” the Christian Science Monitor article said, and I agree.
What do you think?
Is incivility destroying public discourse and damaging the republic?
Whitney Houston funeral guest shows his program to journalists (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Whitney Houston’s family achieved the near-impossible for themselves and for her. They managed to hold a private “home-going service” for the superstar, and did so, in part, by graciously broadcasting that service to the world.
The setting was an unlikely one, dotted as the neighborhood is with abandoned and half-built buildings. An exceptional, appropriate silence prevailed throughout a wide perimeter around the church. Local gangs reportedly even called a truce in Houston’s honor.
When I spoke to Rev. Howard in preparation for my reporting, he expressed concern that fans would forget that, although Houston was a public figure, her untimely death is fundamentally a family tragedy.
“If people have any kind of dignity and compassion, if they truly love Whitney Houston in the best sense of the word, they won’t go clamoring at the church, knowing they have no invitation,” Howard had said.
Perhaps fans did, in fact, love her enough to stay away, because there were no crowds—only a couple hundred journalists, a significant police presence, and handfuls of fans keeping vigil several blocks away as limousines and luxury cars came and went.
The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, has known the Houston family for decades. He shared his memories of the woman he called “Nippy” at CNN.com and provided commentary for the network with Soledad O’Brien, Piers Morgan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the service got underway.
When I spoke to Rev. Soaries Friday evening, he said his ministry to grieving families is informed by his own painful experience of having lost his father suddenly when he was only 24 years old. Because of his father’s stature as a minister in their community, other clergymen came to visit him and his family in the days after his father’s death. None sought to comfort or pray with him, he said. Instead they tried to influence who would preach the funeral. When the time came, minister after minister got up to speak until Soaries passed a note to the emcee saying the family would leave if these men didn’t stop their “foolishness.”
“It was clear to me that their presentations had nothing to do with my dad, nothing to do with the family, and everything to do with them seeing the church full of people, and this big crowd. They were motivated to perform rather than serve,” said Soaries.
Roberta Flack and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie pass a sign that flashed "We Will Always Love You" and "Whitney Houston" as they leave her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Perhaps because they’ve dealt with sycophants for so long, the Houston family seemed to give the microphone only to those who would focus on their “Nippy” and her faith in God.
“You paid a tremendous price in life,” Bishop T.D. Jakes told Houston’s family as he began his remarks. “You shared her with the world and we want to take a moment and say thank you.” Yes, thank you so much.
Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Costner said he fought for Houston to play the leading role in her first film, The Bodyguard, and talked about the insecurities that both made Houston great and contributed to her decline. He said insecurities like hers are not unique among the famous.
Media mogul Tyler Perry said there were two constants in his friend’s life: “a grace that carried” and her love for the Lord. Quoting from the Apostle Paul, he said neither the height of her fame nor the depth of her struggle could separate her from God’s love.
“What then say you to these things?” said Perry. “If God be for you who can be against you? God was for her and she is resting, singing with the angels.”
Soaries said it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of a deceased’s person’s life because “there is some redemptive value in every life” and because doing so “helps counter negative feelings and the negative imagery of the dead body.”
This week a reporter told Soaries that sources who knew Houston kept saying, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
“That’s poetry and, for some, it takes years for the morning to come,” he said. “There’s nothing in the Bible, either in verse or theology that suggests we get over death. Death is too unnatural. What the Bible promises is that God will help us get through it.”
In regard to Houston’s long struggle with drug addiction, Soaries told Piers Morgan that she “was surrounded by an environment of temptation” growing up and “had access to all kinds of things.”
“I would not condemn [ex-husband] Bobby Brown for Whitney’s struggles,” he said.
“I’m surprised to hear all these secular people talk about demons,” Soaries told me. “Once you claim Whitney or anyone was struggling against demons, then you have to understand that it’s not her struggle. All of us, therefore, are struggling against the demons that attack our vulnerabilities. When we are incapable of dealing with demons, that’s when God and God’s emissaries take control, which means that death for a Christian is deliverance from the attack; it’s not surrender to the attack.”
Houston’s struggle wasn’t unlike the struggles of a person who can’t afford to buy food, but buys lottery tickets every week, he said. “It’s the same problem … It’s not that drugs used by a superstar are any worse than gambling for someone on food stamps. Something attacks our vulnerability and causes us to behave in self-destructive ways.”
This is what journalists call the "coffin shot": Whitney Houston's casket being carried out of New Hope Baptist Church after her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Rev. Howard went further in his assessment of Houston’s decline. He believes that she, like so many exceptionally talented artists before her, succumbed to an “occupational hazard.”
“Talented people are somehow caught in a cycle of demand for their services without regard for their humanity,” said Howard. “I think it’s a dance between the artist’s temperament and their vanity or ego and their desire to remain on top in a very competitive business. I think there are people who are around them, who suck their blood, so to speak.”
I felt like one of those people yesterday, showing up as I did to photograph and report on her funeral. Around me journalists jockeyed for shots of her casket being loaded into a hearse and for the inside scoop on why Bobby Brown abruptly left soon after the funeral began. Like them I took the coffin shot and reported what sources inside were saying about Brown because that’s what the world wanted to see and know.
“What is the social madness? What is the social need that makes us virtually deadened to the family hurt and pain of this loss?” Howard asked. He would have liked to see Houston singing into her old age like Etta James (who died last month at 74 years old) did.
“[James] had her own struggles, but she managed somehow to pull out of this,” he said.
Perhaps the great lesson to be learned from Houston’s unlikely funeral is the one her family — rooted as it is in community, church, and gospel — taught us. Artists like her generously share their gifts with us. They don’t belong to us. They belong to the people who love and nurture them through the heights and the depths of their lives, and who send them home with grace when their battles are done.
BRIGHTER DAYS: Whitney Houston onstage in 1986. (Photo: Peter Mazel/Newscom)
A friend of mine and I secretly joke about people’s dramatic, gushing proclamations after a celebrity death. We often wondered how someone could be honestly “devastated” by the passing of an individual whose music/voice/personality we’ve only digested through a middleman such as the radio, a Letterman interview, or a blockbuster film.
I wondered this until Saturday, February 11, 2012. I was in Baltimore doing community outreach when MSNBC released a breaking news text that Whitney Houston had passed in her hotel room. My immediate reaction was disbelief. And then the calls came in from my family and friends, checking to see if I knew yet and asking if I was okay. Every call seemed like a damning confirmation and I thought, “Maybe if people stop saying it, it won’t have really happened.” So I got into my car for the long drive home, too numb to really display any emotion. I started the engine and before I could stop it, I heard the pure, clear voice often called “America’s Voice” lean into the gospel classic “I Love the Lord.”
Then it hit me.
This was the voice of a woman who was no longer with us.
I could tell you how the tollbooth guy seemed genuinely concerned by my tear-streaked face during our transaction, but I’d rather share something more useful. Whitney’s life and music taught me a few things:
1. Sexy doesn’t have to mean blond and blue-eyed or skimpy and short. Whitney burst on the scene in the ’80s with big hair, leg warmers, and off-the-shoulder tanks. With her mother Cissy Houston’s guidance and her cousin Dionne Warwick’s backing, Whitney Houston became the face of the All-American Girl, and she didn’t even have to writhe around the stage or downplay her “Blackness.” The world hasn’t been the same since, and it isn’t a good karaoke night until someone sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
2. Love is a contact sport. As the child of a minister, there were few secular artists whose music made it into our house, but there was no avoiding the big, powerful and family-friendly sound of Whitney Houston. Furthermore, my military elementary school in Texas followed the National Anthem with “One Moment In Time” as a form of civic inspiration, every single morning. Before I got to find out for myself, I learned that sometimes love hurts so bad, love is timeless (“I Will Always Love You”), and that anxious, nervous feeling I got whenever I saw that boy from my class was normal (“How Will I Know”). She even taught us a little healthy self-love with “The Greatest Love of All.”
3. Women are multidimensional. These days, filmmakers anxious to sell tickets give acting gigs to anyone with a recognizable face, making the “singer slash actress” role almost assumed. Whitney, though … she did it right. Whitney not only headlined the soundtracks for The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife … but she acted in them. Let me say that again, she ACTED in them. Whitney was more than a pretty face who could sing; she was a mother, a wife, a philanthropist, an actress, and a producer. She truly epitomized “I’m Every Woman” and taught me from an early age that I could be too.
4. Everyone makes mistakes. For four years straight, I was Whitney Houston for Halloween. And not just because it was a relatively cheap costume, but because she was gorgeous, well spoken, had an amazing talent, and seemed like such fun to be around. She wasn’t human to me; she was larger than life. But while Whitney’s voice inspired and brought joy to millions, her life was often spotted with rough times. Unlike you and me, Whitney didn’t have the luxury of enduring these trials with a finite spotlight cast by her family and friends; Whitney went through it all publicly. While this glaring spotlight may have laid bare her pain, it served to remind us that everyone has problems and everyone stumbles.
The woman that I most wanted to be like growing up has died at 48, leaving her 18-year-old daughter motherless. Her well-known battles with addiction offer cautionary lessons of their own, but they don’t tell us anything about her private struggle to overcome them. That is now between Whitney and her Creator. I won’t speculate about the cause of her death, because big picture-wise it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recognize the very human quality of the entertainers that enrich our lives.
Whitney’s voice made her unique. But Whitney’s troubles made her one of us. And for that, I am grateful.
I haven’t stopped missing Whitney since I got the news. But while I’m sorry she’s left us, I’m thankful that her music itself provides a salve to help heal the wound in our hearts.
In the wake of the passing of one of the best vocalists of all time, I’ve made a decision.
I want us all to have a new relationship with celebrities.
It came to me in my quest to learn the details surrounding the death of Whitney Houston. As I surfed channel after channel looking for answers, I was repulsed by the tone of the coverage. Tired of countless photos and video footage of her with her ex-husband Bobby Brown at her worst. Indignant over the constant references to quite possibly the worst time of her life.
Even worse are some of the tweets and Facebook updates I’ve seen. One post remarked: “People are SURPRISED Whitney Houston is dead…REALLY?! She was a DRUG ADDICT!!” Others mocked her infamous “crack is whack” statement to Diane Sawyer in 2002.
Not that I ignored all the drama when it was going on … I saw it and it broke my heart then. But I never indulged and watched. I think I saw half of one episode of Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown. Do you wanna know why?
I was (am) a fan of Whitney Houston and admired her talent and gifts.
Plain and simple.
Never had an appetite to watch her struggle. It never gave me any pleasure to see coverage of what everyone is now calling “bizarre behavior.” I refused to buy a People magazine with a disheveled picture of Whitney on the cover. I long ago tuned out whenever negative coverage of any celebrity is pushed and pushed.
What is it about us — society — that enjoys watching another human being struggle and suffer? Especially if that human has lots of money.
We all make mistakes. We all have our vices. We all have profound flaws in our character.
I am grateful I don’t have to live mine out in front of the whole world. I also try to be gracious enough not to judge others for the worst thing they ever did in their lives. Over and over again.
We can stop this madness. We can vote with our remotes and stop supporting programming that takes advantage of the worst of the people we claim to love. We can stop buying the magazines. The paparazzi exist because of our collective demand.
After the 1997 death of Princess Diana, I opted out of madness. And it is 100 times worse now with all the new media.
Similar to Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, many of Whitney’s fans began mourning her demise years before her actual passing. But many of us also prayed that her story would have a happier ending. We knew her voice would never be the same, but we hoped that she would find the peace and wholeness that seemed to elude her.
Even as they entertain and inspire us, it’s important to remember that celebrities are people too — real people with struggles, sadness, pain. All the money and fame in the world cannot secure true peace. Princess Diana knew that. Michael Jackson knew that.
Whitney Houston knew that.
Maybe God allows some people to become famous not just so that they can entertain us but so that we can pray for them. Maybe they need our prayers just as much as our applause.