I was shocked and saddened today when I learned that Rodney King had been found dead. My sons and I saw King just a little over a month ago at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books where he was appearing as the coauthor of a new memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption. As I described in a blog post at the time, the three of us had all been touched by his soft-spoken humility and graciousness.
In that appearance, King never portrayed himself as a civil rights leader or pretended to be a hero. And he didn’t try to deny that many of the problems he had faced in his life were brought on by his own actions and mistakes.
But his word and attitudes then—and in other recent interviews—seemed to show that he had made a kind of uneasy peace with the role that he had been thrust into so publicly, so unwillingly.
A Los Angeles Times story says King recently admitted that he felt burdened by the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked by the acquittal of officers who had been videotaped beating King after a traffic stop. Fifty people died in those riots; thousands of homes and buildings were burned; millions of dollars were lost; countless people were scarred.
“For a long time, sure, I was letting the pressure of being Rodney King get to me. … Do they blame me for the all those people who died?”
But King told the interviewer he had come to a place of some peace about the events that changed not only his life but roiled a whole country.
“I would change a few things, but not that much,” he said. “Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn’t, but that’s not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place.”
Many Americans would argue with that assessment, claiming there is little definitive evidence that our society is better off now than when King tried to outrun the police on a Los Angeles freeway more than 20 years ago.
But I heard King’s definition of progress in the Festival of Books event a few weeks ago. He didn’t try to measure it by unemployment numbers or economic indicators. Instead, he told the audience that every day he worked to give up “a little more hate” and make something positive happen.
King knew better than most how one small action can touch off an unintended cataclysm of events. Who could have possibly foretold that his decision to drink and drive one night would lead to some of the worst urban rioting ever seen in our country? Living with that reality placed a heavy burden on him. But in his own simple way, he also saw how the reverse could be true. The world can be changed, he told the Book Festival audience that day, when people decide to change themselves a little bit every day. Who knows what kind of revolution can be sparked by one seemingly insignificant action?
Little by little, small step by small step.
And by that definition, I think there is no doubt that the world is a better place today because of Rodney King’s life.