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Rodney King Dies At 47

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Twenty years ago, racial tensions in this country became an international outrage as the world watched the video of white police officers brutally beating Rodney King, a black man. Today, King was found dead in his swimming pool, and police say it appears to be a drowning with no signs of foul play.

NPR's Allison Keyes reminds us that King's beating had a profound effect on the nation's perception of police brutality.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: In 1991, the video was pervasive. After a traffic stop following a high-speed chase, a civilian taped King as he was beaten repeatedly with steel batons, causing skull fractures and permanent brain damage. A year later, the officers charged in the case were acquitted, leading to the worst riots in American history.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We've seen rocks and then I presume bottles and various things thrown at cars.

KEYES: Rodney King himself pleaded for peace.

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

KEYES: L.A.-based civil rights lawyer Connie Rice has known King for years and just saw him at a forum.

CONNIE RICE: Three weeks ago when I saw him, he'd never looked better. He looked healthy. He didn't look haunted anymore.

KEYES: King and those who knew him have acknowledged his battle with alcohol. He recently said his sobriety was a work in progress, and he had several run-ins with the law after the beating. But King's issues didn't detract from the awe he inspired in many communities. Rice says the mostly African-American audience at the events treated King as more than an icon.

RICE: The symbolism of what he went through and it was somewhat redeeming when he said, can we all get along?

KEYES: Civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. recalls King as a complex man who was rebounding well and says the filmed attack on King made it impossible for people to dismiss similar incidents.

JESSE JACKSON SR.: It served to illuminate the darkness on the issue of race profiling and police brutality.

KEYES: But Jackson stresses that 20 years later, it seems clear both racial profiling and police brutality remain a problem. He points at the recent killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

SR.: We seem not to have learned a valuable lesson because the race profiling continues and the brutality continues.

KEYES: In April, NPR asked Rodney King if he had thought about what he's like engraved on his headstone. He said, quote, "Can we all just get along? Can we all get along in peace?" Allison Keyes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.

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