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Rodney King Dead at 47: His Life and Impact

Rodney King at a recent book signing
Rodney King at a recent book signing
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

On Twitter, socialite Bevy Smith was among the first to tweet the exclusive TMZ report that Rodney King was dead at 47. Found at the bottom of his pool by his fiancée Cynthia Kelley, King was at the center of the L.A. Riots. Coincidentally, Kelley was among the jurors who decided the amount of damages awarded to King in his civil suit against the City of Los Angeles.

Since 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, King had been highly visible over the last few months with appearances on several television programs, including the doc Uprising: Hip-Hop and The L.A. Riots, which VH1 aired in May, and his appearance with Piers Morgan on CNN.

Prior to the L.A. Riots, however, millions of Americans were disturbed by the brutal 1991 beating of Rodney King captured on video by George Holliday. Regardless of King’s crime of driving under the influence and accusations of resisting arrest, there was no justification for such excessive force. King was beaten nearly to death,

When a jury acquitted the officers on April 29, 1992, the citizens of Los Angeles, tired of Black person after Black person being harmed without justice being served, erupted in violence that captured the entire nation’s attention. Black Los Angeles was already reeling from the lack of justice administered in the Latasha Harlins case where a Korean store owner killed a 15-year-old girl days after the King beating but only received probation. President George H. W. Bush expressed outrage, along with Los Angeles’s Black Mayor Tom Bradley and civil rights leaders, at the King verdict.

In Atlanta, Rev. Joseph Lowery, a comrade of Dr. Martin Luther King and then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told the Los Angeles Times on April 30, 1992, following the acquittal, “I am shocked, outraged, and frightened for our nation,” adding that “Even in Johannesburg, South Africa, they have begun to punish white officers who assault black people.”

The beating was so impactful that Spike Lee kicked off his classic 1992 film Malcolm X with footage of the brutal beating transforming into a burning American flag that eventually becomes an X. A Different World incorporated the L.A. Riots into its 1992 season premiere. Other television shows at the time referencing the L.A. Riots include The Arsenio Hall Show, In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Real World, L.A. Law and even Doogie Howser, MD.

For his part, King advocated peace during the riots and is famous for asking “Can we all get along?” Legendary anchor Bernard Shaw, arguably the most prominent African American news professional in that capacity, manned Atlanta-based CNN’s exhaustive coverage of the L.A. Riots. In recent months, he also pleaded for calm in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder.

To some, the aftermath of King’s beating has resulted in positive actions like the LAPD acknowledging its poor track record in dealing with Black men in particular. Although few can deny that there is still a long road to justice, Rodney King helped spark an important national dialogue.

Although his life after the beating included additional run-ins with the law and he was on VH1's Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008 to deal with his alcohol addiction, in recent months, King seemed like a new man. With an impending wedding and his book The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption out, King, who was born on April 2, 1965, looked fit and happy during his recent television appearances.

Full details of King's drowning death are still emerging.


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