The Tale of Two Kings: How Two Men Began and Ended the Modern Civil Rights Movement

The modern civil rights movement began and ended with edicts by two “Kings.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 launched it, while Rodney King’s “Can We All Get Along?” television message on May 1, 1992 ended it.

It was three decades of “movement” that abolished segregated schools, housing, bus seating, bathrooms, hotels, parks and other public spaces for black America. King’s “Dream” put Southern “Jim Crow” Democrats on notice, including their feared terrorist organization: the Ku Klux Klan. For decades the KKK executed justice while southern Democrat politicians kept blacks from exercising their basic civil rights, from the right to vote to where they lived.

These white robed and hooded KKK thugs burned crosses, torched homes…and lynched.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 in 44 different states. A quarter of these lynchings were white Americans. That’s because the Southern Democrats and the KKK also lynched Republicans, Roman Catholics, Jews and other foreigners. The last black man lynched in America was a 19-year old kid named Michael Donald, found hanging in a Mobile, AL tree on March 21, 1981.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fearless rhetoric on August 28, 1963 sent a clear message that all lives mattered:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Did King’s speech end racism in America? Absolutely not. Cultural racism remains an issue to this day. But his speech and work eventually produced the end of institutional racism, that is the use of coordinated, public and political means (including “southern justice”) to keep black Americans segregated, oppressed and fearful. To win over white America–particularly its religious culture–King (a Southern Baptist minister) used the new medium of television to point a camera at southern inequality and injustice.

His work helped to end the KKK, which now numbers at best a few thousand (compared to over 4 million members during the 1920s). His work ended lynchings and wholesale segregation. His work and “dream” helped black Americans to pursue great wealth, fame and power. From Barack Obama and Kamala Harris to Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas to Michael Jordan and LeBron James to Sydney Poitier and Morgan Freeman, there is no longer a segregated employment “plantation” for the black man or woman. In the past 60 years black men and women have become successful CEOs, presidents, mayors, governors, astronauts, authors, movie-makers, musicians, athletes and countless other great professions.

Which brings us to the second “King” in this tale.

Rodney King.

Born two years after King’s speech, Rodney King grew up a troubled kid near Pasadena, CA. In 1989, he brutalized a Korean store owner for $200 in cash and spent a year in prison. And then, in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, King and two friends were returning from a party. They were all inebriated and King knew a D.U.I. violated his parole. So Rodney tried to outrun the cops with speeds reaching 117 m.p.h. He even recklessly drove 80 m.p.h. through residential neighborhoods, running stop signs and lights.

When the police finally stopped him, King reportedly made light of the situation, waving at the police chopper, giggling and grabbing his butt (which police interpreted as where he holstered a gun). When four officers tried to handcuff King, he resisted arrest. He was tasered and then rushed officers multiple times. That’s when he’s knocked down by a baton-wielding officer. Officers continued to beat King, even after ordered to stop. Eventually King was cuffed and arrested.

If it wasn’t for an amateur videographer named George Holliday, this event would’ve never been recorded. And even then, his video tape showed only the latter part of the police beating. There was no record, other than police reports, about the events that led to King’s arrest. In the end Rodney King was never charged in this incident despite clearly driving under the influence and evading arrest. The videotape was the bigger story. It literally created a new narrative that exonerated King…and made him a millionaire hero.

Police brutality.

Essentially, Rodney King was the victim. Despite his criminal record, his parole violation, his drunk driving, his excessive speeding and resisting arrest, King was the new poster child for police brutality.

The L.A. police department was now on trial. Surprisingly, race wasn’t the issue…at first. However, the black community in L.A. had a long grievance against how the police responded, worked and arrested in their communities. King’s “moment”–despite his crimes–were surprisingly overlooked and excused. What mattered was getting justice for the collective “beatings” the black community had endured (and still faced) at the hands of L.A. police. In their minds there was no difference between Rodney King and Martin Luther King when it came to police beatings, although the latter was clearly done without any criminal mischief. In the black community’s minds, Rodney King was a personification of every black person who was unfairly targeted, arrested and sometimes beat up by the police.

After a highly-publicized trial–presented to a jury composed of ten white, one bi-racial, one Latino and one Asian–on April 29, 1992, all four officers were acquitted of assault. In the charge of excessive force, three of the four officers were found not guilty.

The acquittals lit the fuse to the L.A. riots of 1992. The black community was enraged by the verdicts and decided to mete out their own justice by beating, torching and looting. Roaming black gangs targeted whites, Asians and Latinos. One group of thugs pulled a white man from his vehicle and viciously beat him up, leaving him for dead. Thousands of businesses were vandalized, looted and torched. Whole neighborhoods went up in flames. For six days, Los Angeles was like a war zone. When the smoke cleared, 63 people were dead, thousands more injured and over 3,100 businesses destroyed (nearly $1 billion in total damage).

In the middle of the riots, on May 1, 1992, Rodney King stepped up to a microphone to, hopefully, quell the firestorm:

I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? …Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?…It’s not right, and it’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice. They’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war. We’ll get our day in court, and that’s all we want. And, just, uh, I love – I’m neutral. I love every – I love people of color. I’m not like they’re making me out to be. We’ve got to quit…It’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. …We all can get along. We just gotta. We gotta. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s, you know, let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it, you know. Let’s try to work it out.

Rodney King’s “can we all get along” message signaled the end of Martin Luther King’s “dream.” By 1992 it was clear that racial injustice remained a perceived problem (in the black communities) and MLK’s vision was likely just a pipe dream. A new era had dawned. In this post-King world, new, more divisive, voices had emerged to spark a distinctly “black power” movement, underfoot since the late 1960s. Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X. Bobby Seale. The Nation of Islam. Black Panthers. During the 1970s, exclusive black culture became a television staple. Sanford and Son. The Jeffersons. Good Times. What’s Happening. Soul Train. Black movies like Shaft and Superfly were popular. Black music from funk to rap, from Earth, Wind and Fire to Michael Jackson ruled the airwaves.

Black America further politically and culturally dominated in the 1980s, most notably behind their own network “Black Entertainment Television” and the racially-segregated politics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who wanted a distinctly black political party. The Cosby Show reimagined blacks as wealthy, hip and smart (and with an 89% white audience, the “Cosby factor” was a cultural juggernaut). Meanwhile MTV, finally bowing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” devoted huge blocks of air time to promote rap and hip hop music, exposing young white America to these new genres. The National Basketball Association evolved from predominantly white in 1965 to nearly all black in 2020. In fact, out of 450 professional basketball players, only 43 are American-born white (less than 10%).

But not all was well. In the wake of the Reagan revolution, urban poverty continued and black America was hit hardest. In the “urban jungle” black gangs became millionaires selling crack. Theft, murder and other violence ruled the streets. Gangster rap told the tales. Places like Rodney King’s Los Angeles–particularly neighborhoods like south-central Compton–were ground zero.

A new black narrative also emerged.

Martin Luther King’s pacifism wasn’t the answer. After all, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. His final words, reportedly, were to a musician named Ben Branch set to perform that night: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life. He was a martyr.

Instead of looking at how King galvanized a civil rights movement to end systemic racism for the black and create a “unified” racial culture with no colors, the African-American community (as they now preferred to be called) wanted a different outcome. They preferred to remain racially segregated (“black and proud”)…but they also wanted to be wealthy, powerful and famous too. And since the 1980s, that’s exactly what happened. A lot of black America escaped poverty to make a name for themselves…not to mention a lot of money. Today there are more millionaire black Americans than ever.

But this rich reality only further divided black Americans into two social classes: The Cosby and Fresh Prince “rich” (which still looked awfully “white” to many blacks) and the Straight Outa Compton “poor.” The rich blacks no longer faced prejudice or racism, like their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had. But the poor urban blacks felt differently. In their minds, they were still held down and still oppressed because they were still poor. Their “projects” were now “slums.” Their urban schools were a mess. Black unemployment skyrocketed while Latino and Asian businesses now controlled their neighborhoods. They only way a young black urban male could get “rich” was to gang bang, sell dope and steal.

It’s why poor urban blacks eventually looked to Rodney King as the working solution to their cultural racism. He became a new model for how blacks could get “rich” quick. After all, for his trouble, King was awarded $3.8 million (but only after he turned down a $200,000 free college education). And while his pay day set him for life, it didn’t insure success. King spent his money on a record label that failed. He wrote a memoir that few read. He married and divorced twice. He exhausted much of his money for alcohol and drugs. He eventually landed on reality television…in a celebrity rehab show. Essentially, Rodney King made millions for getting beat up by the police. He then stayed famous for being bad. In July 1995 King went so far as to use his car to hit his wife. On June 17, 2012, his girlfriend found him dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. Alcohol, cocaine and PCP were found in Rodney’s system.

It’s why this is the tale of two Kings.

One a southern messiah who righteously laid down his life in Memphis to carved a dream for his people and forever end institutional racism in America. The other a troubled addict who ended the King era, now smoldering ashes in south-central L.A.–with five short words: “Can’t we all get along?”

It truly was the end of the modern civil rights movement.

In the coming years and decades, new movements emerged with new “heroes”–nearly all with criminal records–to galvanize a purely “Black Lives Matter” culture. From O.J. Simpson to Michael Brown to George Floyd, black Americans often blamed and shamed the police–and sometimes rightly so–to force wholesale reform in police arrest tactics, criminal justice, prison sentencing and incarceration. Often million dollar payouts rewarded the grieving families of sons killed by the police. Furthermore, in the past decade, a new “critical race theory” of American shame revised our national history to project what many believe is a purely racist view. According to this theory, the U.S. Founding Fathers were racists and wanted the institution of slavery. Slavery was now our greatest national sin. In some applications of critical race theory, white people are prejudiced, responsible…and even evil.

In an age where smartphone video and YouTube instantly released raw and unedited material, everything is now subjected to the court of public opinion first. Social narratives are spun on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes completely counter to the actual facts. Ironically, in many ways, the civil rights movement is also a tale of visual technology, aided first by television, then camcorder video and, finally, the smartphone camera.

The irony is America is more racially divided than ever, even while minorities enjoy better livelihoods.

It’s why the messages of both Kings remain relevant and necessary.

As Martin Luther King concluded:

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.

Indeed, I too pray that one day ALL lives will matter and ALL Americans–regardless of ethnicity, age, gender or religion–will be fully free.

Free…at last!

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