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Rodney King On How He Wanted To Be Remembered


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will hear one woman's very personal story that touches on one of this country's ongoing political debates.

But first, we want to tell you about another flashpoint in this country's history. More than 20 years ago, Rodney King was the victim of a brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers. That incident was caught on videotape. The officers were charged and went to trial. But when they were acquitted, it sparked six days of violent, bloody riots in Los Angeles.

Yesterday, Rodney King was found dead in his swimming pool. He was 47 years old. He joined me in April to talk about his memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption." We'd like to remember him by hearing a little bit of that conversation.


MARTIN: I know this is not the only interview you're doing, where - I'm assuming that you're being asked to relive many of these moments. Is that hard?

RODNEY KING: You know, as time goes on, it - you know, it gets a lot easier. It was very hard for me to watch the video. And it still is, to this day; you know, all depending on my - what kind of mood I'm in.

MARTIN: You famously held a press conference, and this is what you said. Here it is:

KING: I just - I just want to say, you know, can we - can we all get along? Can we - can we get along?

MARTIN: You know, you can hear, you know, the emotion in your voice at that time. And anybody who saw that, could see it. In the book, you write that your own mother begged you not to say anything publicly. Why is that?

KING: She - because, you know, my mom - you got to - she's a little older than me. Her history in watching, you know, police violence and violence, period, over the years - haven't been a pleasant one. And so she thought that maybe I'd get shot or beat to death, out there on the podium, you know. But, you know, I'm from a new generation from hers, and her generation set the footwork. All the civil rights leaders and people who died - black and white; you know, Mexican, Chinese, black, you name it - all the ones that died for me, and for civil rights in this country, you know, I owed that to them, you know, after thinking about it now.

And so it was a good thing for me to get out there and put some water on the fire instead of throwing gasoline in it. You don't need to threaten the city to get your point across. That's the way I felt. That's not the way I was raised.

MARTIN: Your book talks a lot about your own, personal journey; your own, personal efforts to kind of deal with your issues - including your alcohol, and other stuff. So I don't want people to think that all it's about is, you know, looking out. You're doing a lot of looking in. But I did want to ask whether you think, 20 years later, is anything better?

KING: Yeah. Change is slow. You know, the justice system worked for me. You know, it's a slow system, but it works. It worked in my case and, you know, the people - the ones that have died over the years, the civil rights movement, all the - Martin Luther King, the Al Sharpton - all of the other people, if they didn't go through what they went through, there wouldn't be no Rodney King. I probably would have been dead - killed, shot, finished off - a long time ago. And I definitely wouldn't have a book.

MARTIN: Obviously, you have many more years with us, one hopes, and you've written this book to kind of reflect upon these last 20 years. How would you want people to think of you? When they hear the name Rodney King, how do you want people to think of you?

KING: I've always, in my heart and soul, you know, I'll always try to say something or do something to make it a lot more pleasant for the next generation behind us. When you speak and something, if you can't say something pleasant and make somebody's day easier, just keep it shut. That's how my mom and my pop raised me, you know. And that's how things get better.

So I'll want to be remembered by, can't we all just get along? You know, and I knew - like I say, I know I shouldn't have been drinking and driving. But two wrongs don't make a right.

MARTIN: That was an excerpt from a conversation I had with Rodney King back in April. He died on Sunday. He was 47 years old. To listen to the full interview, go to NPR.org/TellMeMore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.