Rodney King

2 minute read

Rodney King, who was 47 when he was found dead in the pool at his Los Angeles home on June 17, was a symbol of many things. Primarily of police brutality. In 1991 he was savagely beaten by LAPD officers after speeding and refusing to stop. The King beating was vicious–but not uncommon. What separated it from others was that 81 seconds of it was surreptitiously videotaped by a stranger, giving the world a look at the police coldly and cruelly beating a black man. In 1992, the officers were acquitted of assault charges. The verdict ignited riots in Los Angeles that left 50 people dead and caused $1 billion in damage.

It was the media that transformed King’s ordeal into a moment that would never die. That’s why it sits on a gruesome continuum of horrific moments that swelled to have a forceful impact on America, from Emmett Till in 1955 to Trayvon Martin this year. These three are martyrs, their moments immortalized and disseminated, thus showing black pain, revealing American injustice and tapping into the moral power necessary to inspire change. Unlike Till and Martin, King survived his moment, but it was hard living as a man who was famous for being an accidental maker of history. “I didn’t go to school to be ‘Rodney King,'” he said earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s taken years to get used to the situation I’m in in life and the weight it holds.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at