Rodney King's Legacy: A Civil Rights Symbol
His life after his 1991 beating had its ups and downs, but the pain wasn't in vain.
King and Kelley left the interview arm in arm and headed to the Original Pantry Café, L.A.'s landmark downtown diner, for a bite to eat before returning to his home in Rialto, where he was found Sunday morning at the bottom of the pool.
I saw him once more a couple of days after the interview, when we met with the Ebony magazine photographer at the corner of Florence and Normandie Avenues in South L.A. -- one of the flashpoints for the 1992 riots. He was relaxed and full of jokes about how he endured the painful, terrifying beating 21 years ago. Passersby who recognized him yelled as they walked or drove by. "Hi, Rodney," women called out as they watched the striking, six-foot-four King graphically reenacting his near-death experience -- in a parking lot just yards from where white truck driver Reginald Denny was dragged from his semi-trailer truck and beaten by a mob of young black men during the riots. "Hi," he waved back, still somewhat uneasy with his ill-fitting celebrity after all these years.
I never saw King again after that. But the news of his death Sunday morning reminded me of what may be his greatest legacy -- that in a very real sense, Rodney King endured the mother of all police beatdowns for young black men everywhere. Without the chilling events of that infamous night on a lonely Los Angeles street, there might not be nearly as much attention being paid to protests like the one in New York City Sunday or to the upcoming trial in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Rev. Al Sharpton, attending the stop and frisk protest in New York City Sunday, perhaps said it best: "Rodney King was a symbol of civil rights, and he represented the anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling movement of our time. It was his beating that made America focus on the presence of profiling and police misconduct … History will record that it was Rodney King's beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement."
And for that, we should all be grateful that one man's tragic life of pain and suffering was not without meaning.
Sylvester Monroe is a frequent contributor to The Root.