Death of an Icon

Rodney King’s Sudden Death Ends Long Struggle With Demons

Six weeks before he died, King shared his lingering fears about racism and his hopes for the future with The Daily Beast. Allison Samuels revisits the interview. Plus, James Braxton Peterson on what King's death symbolizes and Christine Pelisek reports.

Joe Klamar, AFP / Getty Images

Only six weeks ago Rodney Glen King sat down for breakfast and spoke at length with The Daily Beast about the pain, both physically and mentally, of the last 20 years of his life. He referenced the headaches, body aches, memory loss, and nightmares that continued to plague his towering 6-foot-2 frame almost two decades after that fateful night in Los Angeles that shocked the world and changed his life forever.

As King spoke sincerely of his state of peace and his forgiveness for the LAPD officers who beat him, his slightly scarred face and mangled hands told a different story. King’s very being bore the unmistakable signs of the frightened, tired, and weary life hard lived.

As news of King’s death at 47 circulates in and around Los Angeles communities, a few who knew the controversial figure say they aren’t surprised by the sudden end to the life of a man who lived every day constantly reminded of his traumatic past and uncertain of his future. King’s body was found floating at the bottom of his swimming pool early Sunday morning. Police reports suggest he may have drowned.

“I don’t know what really killed Rodney,” said 56-year-old Cloris Howard, King’s cousin. “But I do know he was heartbroken and disappointed again and again by a lot of things over the years. He didn’t see a lot of fairness in the world for him or anyone who looked like him. A person can only take so many beat-downs before it kills them one way or another.”

King seemed to admit as much recently, as he discussed the cases of Trayvon Martin and several other African-Americans targeted and even tortured over the years, allegedly because of their race. He’d watched as the police officers who’d kicked and beaten him walked free in 1992. King’s words that day in April indicated a certain sad and reluctant resignation to the realities of racial bias and injustice.

“My daddy was from the Deep South, and he always told me as kid not to let them (police) catch me if they were chasing me, because they would kill me,” King said during that interview. “I think that was racing in my mind as the cops were chasing me back then. I think I could hear my daddy’s voice and his stories of how much people hated you if you were black. I try not to get upset about it or think about it, but some days it ain’t easy, particularly when kids are being shot and killed because of their skin being brown.”

Still, despite King’s lingering frustrations about racial progress, family members say he appeared to welcome the attention he’d begun to receive again in recent months. The shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the lack of immediate action to punish his killer reminded many of King’s 1991 brutal beating by the LAPD, and King began to speak out to local and national news outlets. The 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots offered him yet another platform to offer his views on race, politics, and his own journey of ups and downs before and after he became the poster child for police abuse. King freely recounted his more recent arrests that revolved around drinking and sporadic drug use.

“I tell people I’m not perfect and I haven’t always made good decisions, and sometimes I make the same mistakes again and again,” said King. “I’ve paid for them by doing time, and I wanted to tell those guys, particularly my brothers that are in jail, to wise up because it’s vicious cycle. I’m not proud of the trouble I’ve been in, but I’m thankful to be alive. So many of my partners from back in the day didn’t make it and sometimes I wonder how I did.”

Friends and family say that while King continued to fight the demons of substance abuse, he also was committed to entering rehab again, if needed, for the sake of his family. King even appeared on Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew a few years back. Some news reports are now suggesting King was drinking and getting high the afternoon before his death.

“Rodney definitely battled staying sober,” said a friend of the King family. “He’s been doing drugs on and off for years. He’d get clean but then fall back into trap again. I think it hurt too much for him to be clearheaded. I think he wanted to forget it all.”

The friend added that King appreciated the good things in life and loved to dote on his two adult daughters and young grandchildren. He also was looking forward to marrying his fiancée, Cynthia Kelley, sometime later this year. The two met during the police-brutality civil trial, on which she was a juror, which ended with him being awarded $3.8 million. The couple gleefully shared their details of their love connection and home-decorating plans over breakfast in April.

“I always thought he was cute, and we had mutual friends,” Kelley said in April. “The first time we talked on the phone after the case was over, he asked me why I didn’t get him more money. We just hit it off after that.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Ironically, King recently penned a book aptly titled The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, for his daughters and grandchildren. The memoir digs deep into King’s background and life, his run-ins with the police, and the infamous night of “driving while black” in 1991.

“My children were really young when it happened, so it was never the right time to explain all that was going on with me that night,” King said in April. “I also don’t know if I was really ready to talk about it anyway. It’s still very hard. This way my girls have written pages to explain what I faced and how I faced it. My grandkids can read it too when they are ready.”

Sadly, even 20 years later, King struggled with just how to view the tragic events that had come to define his adult life. Friends say he’d often resented and tried to escape the heavy burden he bore as the face of one of the most horrific race-related incidents in history—and often found more trouble instead.

“Rodney King was like Rosa Parks in many ways,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. “He became a living symbol, and that’s the toughest title to live with. Particularly for a man like King who didn’t have the background or legacy of support to help him deal with the pressure and demands of being the person in front. He wasn’t prepared for that role. King represented so much in black life. He represented the promise and the pain of being a black man today: an image of hope one moment and that hope dashed in an instant.”