(The Root) — We all make mistakes. Some are bigger than others. And if we survive them, most of us try to learn from our mistakes, make amends and move on. Rodney King made the biggest mistake of his life — drinking and driving — on the night of March 3, 1991, when four white Los Angeles police officers nearly beat him to death during a traffic stop. Earlier this year, as he and the rest of the nation were about to observe the 20th anniversary of the 1992 riots sparked by the acquittals of the four officers who brutalized him, King told me that he thought he was going to die that night.
"I was close to death on March 3, 1991," he said during an April interview for Ebony magazine at the Los Angeles Marriott Hotel downtown. "I thought they were going to kill me."
He did not die that night and today his name is the most famous symbol of police brutality in the nation and perhaps the world. As news of his surprising death spread Sunday morning, black and Latino civil rights and community leaders were gathering in New York City to protest what they say is an unjust stop-and-frisk policy that has led to continued profiling of young blacks and Latinos and ongoing allegations of excessive force and police brutality by New York City police officers.
"What happened to me and what's happened to others can still happen," King said in the Los Angeles interview. "The police are still killing people. I am just glad I was one of those who the camera was on."
The 47-year-old King's untimely death Sunday will undoubtedly focus even more media attention on the tragedy of his life — highlighted by the infamous videotaped beating, the riots and two decades of personal missteps, including repeated clashes with the law, drug and alcohol addiction and failed business ventures. When we spoke in April, it appeared that King might finally have turned his life around. He arrived at the interview in a chauffeured limousine courtesy of HarperCollins, which published his book, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, just days before the April 29 anniversary of the Los Angeles unrest.
He received 50 rejections before HarperCollins agreed to publish his story. But he said he was finally getting the opportunity to tell everyone what it was like to be Rodney King then and now. He was also planning to get married. His fiancée, Cynthia Kelley, a juror from King's successful civil trial against the acquitted LAPD officers, came with him and sat next to him on a sofa during the interview. "I am happy to be alive," he said. "I see things differently now. I have gotten to know my Creator, gotten closer to my family and my new fiancée. I try to be happy every day and do something that's making a difference in somebody's life."
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.