Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Rodney King's Legacy Was to Blast Away the Myth of a Post-Racial US

Roundup: Talking About History

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library.

For a man of humble origins who might have lived life as most do – without fame or notoriety – Rodney King will go down in history as a seminal figure in the evolution of America's criminal justice system. He died yesterday, only hours before thousands marched silently to protest against abusive police practices in New York City; even in death, he found himself in the midst of an historic moment.

In 1991, the 25-year-old construction worker with a drink problem and a tendency to drive too fast was severely beaten by several white Los Angeles police officers. The attack was caught on videotape, the beating was seen round the world and overnight King became the poster boy for black victims of police brutality in the post-civil rights era. At a moment in American history when the charred memories of fire hoses, German shepherds and viciously slain black teenagers, like Emmett Till, were supposed to fade away, new painful memories were ignited.

Such horrors were not supposed to happen to black people outside the south and certainly not after the United States had become a "more perfect union" with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King was not born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the midst of Jim Crow. He was born in Sacramento, California, in 1965; he grew up just outside Los Angeles, an hour's drive from Disneyland.

In post-civil rights America – just as in theme parks from California to Florida – dreams were supposed to come true, a black boy was supposed to have a chance. Racism had not only been reimagined as a thing of the past; it had been whitewashed from the cultural landscape...

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