RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It will be 20 years ago on Sunday that Los Angeles went up in flames. And the man at the center of the L.A. riots is telling his story with new details. Rodney King was on parole, speeding and under the influence when he refused to stop for police. That ended in a beating that made King famous. Rodney King has written about all this in a new memoir. And he spoke with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: With a helicopter buzzing overhead, the videotape of his encounter with police is so famous, you could say Rodney King was beaten into American history. A year later, the acquittal of the four LAPD officers charged with beating King resulted in the worst riots in modern American history.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good evening. The top news continues at the hour of 6 o'clock. The riots, the fires, the looting...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, the smell of smoke is everywhere this morning, but however...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...white car has a driver in it, and that driver is dead...
BATES: While vast parts of L.A. were still smoldering, King stood on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, pleading for peace.
RODNEY KING: I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?
BATES: That was May 1st, 1992, and King looked dazed and scared. Today he looks alert and healthy. He's come in from his home in Rialto, an hour east of L.A., to talk about his new memoir, "The Riot Within."
In a small park within view of City Hall, King says his can we get along speech was completely impromptu. His lawyers had drafted a far angrier script for him, but he refused to use it.
KING: I couldn't see putting any more heat on the fire. You know? That's not the way I was raised.
BATES: As he recounts in his memoir, King was raised in Pasadena by his mother, Odessa, a devout Jehovah's Witness. Their congregation was multicultural, so King says he was really bothered by the post-verdict fury of some black rioters against non-blacks.
KING: The way I was raised in my religion, is we have to be able to get along with each other. That's your brother and sister. You can't threaten somebody in your household, 'cause America is my house.
BATES: Many people who felt King had been denied justice, didn't appreciate that sentiment, and told him so.
KING: People were mad at me because they didn't think I was going to say can we all get along? I had people come up to me and say what the (beep) did you say that for?
BATES: They wanted King to validate the riots' violence. He wouldn't. King insists he's not naive about race. He does allow that he is trying to figure out how to tell his small nephews that black men are especially vulnerable in certain situations.
KING: It's that black talk. It's the get ready, you know, just be aware, watch your surroundings.
BATES: It's advice he says he should have taken himself on the night he was beaten so badly. Two of the four policemen acquitted in 1992 were convicted in a Federal trial a year later. King eventually received almost $4 million from the City of Los Angeles in a civil suit. He bought two modest homes, one for himself, one for his mother. But most of his settlement evaporated in a failed effort to establish a hip-hop record label, and in a tangle of lawyers' fees.
For years after the trials, a series of minor scrapes with the law ended King in and out of jail until he decided to do something about his alcoholism. Last year, he told CNN, his battle against the bottle is ongoing.
KING: I'll always have an issue when it comes to alcohol. Well, my dad was an alcoholic. The addiction part is in my blood.
BATES: King says he works every day to not give in to the urge, and his sobriety is a work in progress.
His more sober life comes with happy fringe benefits. Last year, King became engaged to Cynthia Kelley, a former juror from his civil trial. He still gets requests from the police, but they're not assume-the-position requests.
KING: For the most of it, out in San Bernardino County, they, Rodney, we need you to come talk to these kids. We need you to do this. You know, things have changed for me. You know?
BATES: Some things haven't. He's still instantly recognizable. He's still plagued with frequent nightmares and physical ailments from the beating. But he seems content. He enjoys babysitting for his grandchildren and nephews. On warm days, he surfs and goes fishing.
And though he hopes he's years away from death, when Rodney King is asked if he's thought about what he'd like engraved on his head stone, he has a ready answer.
KING: Can we all just get along? Can we all get along in peace?
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.