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.
Writing at The Root, Sylvester Monroe speaks of King as a “symbol” whose pain and missteps were not in vain. Last year at Poynter.org, Steve Myers observed how citizen journalism has changed since that infamous video of King being beaten by police. An Associated Press report at HuffPost’s Black Voices attempts to summarize King’s significance in shining a light on the injustices of racial profiling and police brutality in urban law enforcement. The article features an interview with Lou Cannon, author of Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.
“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.
Inwith 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?