When people are thrust into extraordinary circumstances, some rise to the occasion, and some can barely cope. Rodney King fell into both categories. King, who was found dead Sunday at 47, had a record of legal troubles well before Los Angeles police officers beat him after a fateful traffic stop in 1991. A bystander’s video recording of the beating led to an international outcry over police brutality — and indirectly to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which erupted after officers who beat King were acquitted on criminal charges. At the height of the rioting, King became a crucial voice for calm. “Can we all get along?” he pleaded with Angelenos.
Like many other accidental celebrities, King struggled in the aftermath of the fame he never sought. He won a civil judgment against the city of Los Angeles, became romantically involved with one of the jurors, went in and out of jail and rehab, and — maybe inevitably — ended up on reality TV. To his credit, King keenly understood his own limitations, faulting those who tried to turn “a battered and confused addict” into a civil-rights symbol. King never asked for a national platform or hero status. But in 1992, when many in the city looked to him to help quell the violence, King met the challenge in an admirable way. He discarded his prepared script and spoke, instead, in his own voice: simple, memorable, and sincere.