LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The man who was the catalyst for police reform in Los Angeles died yesterday. A videotape captured Rodney King's beating in 1991 at the hands of L.A. police. King's fiance discovered his body early Sunday morning at the bottom of the pool at their home. Authorities do not suspect foul play. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spent time with King earlier this year, and has this remembrance.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It's a sad irony that Rodney King - who'd been an excellent swimmer since childhood - drowned in the pool he so loved. When I spoke with him in April, just before his memoir was published, he said he was aware many black folks were not water-safe.
RODNEY KING: That's one of the reasons why I got into swimming, because I know a lot of black people don't swim, and I know a lot of them go out to the water and don't make it back.
BATES: For King, the water was a second home, an escape from his multiple scrapes with the law and his battles with substance abuse.
KING: I've gotten to have so much fun out on the water. I get my peace of mind when I'm out fishing or something like that. I like to throw that pole in the water and hit a lot of the lakes out there where I live.
BATES: He needed to respite. After his now-famous speech on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, King says not everyone was pleased with his plea for peace.
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 and say: What the (beep) did you say that for?
BATES: But, he said, that's how he felt, then and now. He said he had a message for people who were interested in causing strife among L.A.'s diverse populations.
KING: We only want peace and unity. Be peaceful, you know. If you can't be peaceful, keep your mouth shut.
BATES: He knew can we get along had become as famous as he was. It was sometimes parodied in stand-up routines. But he'd asked the question earnestly. He believed it could be used to dial things back a notch in tense situations.
KING: I feel good when I hear people repeat it, because they know that we should be all getting along, and that's why they say it. They're just teasing because they know when they hear them words, either they're doing something where, in their heart, they're not supposed to be doing it and they know that they should be working on trying to get along.
BATES: King himself had been getting along much better in later years. In the civil trial of the four policemen who'd arrested him, two were convicted. King later sued the city and won a $3.8 million settlement. He bought a modest home for his mother and one for himself and tried to stay out of trouble. He wasn't always successful, but minor scrapes often will become major news because he was Rodney King. He was philosophical about that and a little amused at his backhanded celebrity. He recalled a young officer pulling him over as he biked one night not far from home.
KING: And he was like, dude, I didn't know that was you. It really is you. What are you doing living out here? He was curious, you know. The younger generation of police or whatever now, they're more so curious.
BATES: In the last several years, King spent a lot of time reading and watching the History Channel. He was sometimes interrupted by severe headaches, a legacy from his 1991 beating which shattered his right eye socket. The reconstructive surgery sounded gruesome.
KING: They took out the eyeball, dropped it down and put a little plate, you know, up under the eye here and screwed this eye in so the eye wouldn't fall back down in. So I get headaches from that.
BATES: But considering the severity of his beating, King said he was happy to be alive and was determined to do better going forward.
KING: I'm gonna enjoy every day of this life, because the 47 years done went so fast, I don't have no time for no foolishness.
BATES: King became engaged to Cynthia Kelly, who'd been a juror in his civil trial. They were planning to be married next year when Cynthia's daughter was settled into college. After that, he'd figured out what would come next.
KING: I'm gonna enjoy my kids, enjoy my family, get closer to Jehovah God, get to know that second half of life and enjoy it.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: Rodney King was found dead yesterday at his home in Rialto, California. He was 47 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.