Rodney King will always be remembered for that April 1991 night that changed the history of Los Angeles, but at his memorial Saturday, his family said they wanted to dwell on the man, not the symbol.
So they spoke of the child who played in the foothills above his home in Altadena, of the father who told his daughter to hold her head up, of the friend who was proud of a championship belt from a recent fighting match and of the man known to them as “Glen” or “G.”
“His family’s wish is that this not be political,” King’s attorney, Steven Lerman, said before a public memorial at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills. “This should not be about a black man beaten by police. This is about a soul that was an innocent, a soul that was a good person.”
Not that the two could be easily separated -- even at an event aimed at closure.
For King, the personal always blurred with the political. The private struggles with addiction and efforts to find redemption always veered into the public eye.
But at the memorial, King’s gentle nature was repeatedly evoked. Relatives stressed that the man whose name was synonymous with police brutality also made a famous plea for peace.
“He showed us how to rise above his pain and make this a better place for everyone,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who came from New York to attend the services. “I do not know anyone who could have taken what he took and still not show any bitterness, any rancor or divisiveness.”
About 225 mourners attended the ceremony in the Hall of Liberty, where pictures from King’s life were projected on a screen above the stage and a black casket covered with a wreath of white roses, blue irises and hydrangeas.
The solemn event was punctuated by King’s friend Brent Jones on piano. One photo montage featuring snapshots from King’s life was accompanied by Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
After the initial tributes, King’s daughter, Dene, stepped to the podium accompanied by her sisters, Candice and Tristian. “I know it’s normal to be sad,” she said, “but every time I see his smile, I wonder why we are sad.”
King, who was found dead last month in the swimming pool of his Rialto home, was portrayed as an unlikely hero.
He gained fame in 1991 after enduring a savage beating by four Los Angeles police officers. When those officers were acquitted on charges of using excessive force, anger led to one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history, with 54 dead and nearly $1 billion in property damage.
Two days after the riots broke out, King issued his call -- “Can we all get along?” -- a version of which was embroidered on the inside of his casket.
The 47-year-old King left a complicated legacy, which was reflected in the three remembrances that honored his life.
Earlier in the day, King’s mother, Odessa, and invited guests gathered for a private open-casket service in accordance with their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. King’s brother Paul King, a minister in the faith, was the only speaker.
Afterward, there was a brief news conference, and then, inside the 1,200-seat auditorium, a 90-minute public memorial. Then King’s body was taken to its grave in a section of the cemetery known as Exaltation.
At the memorial, Lerman, citing King’s playfulness and sweetness, remembered a conversation they had in his office while they were working on a civil suit against the city of Los Angeles.
“Long after your case is closed, you are going to have to be Rodney King for the rest of your life. Do you think you can handle that?” Lerman asked. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Steve, I just don’t know.’ ”
King’s words proved prescient as he struggled with addiction in later years. In attendance was TV and radio personality Drew Pinsky, who in 2008 invited King onto his VH1 show, “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.”
In the years that followed the riots, King struggled to reclaim his life. His settlement with the city -- $3.8 million -- dwindled away, spent, he said, on lawyers, family, a home for his mother and another for himself.
Jobless and nearly broke in the end, King did have one brief opportunity to appreciate his long journey. In April, on the 20th anniversary of the riots, he took to the stage to talk about his life and his memoir, “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption.”
“You don’t want to let anybody’s expectations down,” he told Patt Morrison in an April interview. “People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. I should have seen life like that and stay out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations, which [I] wasn’t cut out to be.”
In explaining why he attended the event, Sharpton said that he believed it would be “the height of insensitivity” not to stand with King’s family and “say to them that we thank you for letting Rodney be the symbol that he ended up having to be.”
“Rodney King was not just some prop in some social drama,” Sharpton said. “He was someone’s father. He was someone’s nephew. He was someone’s son.”
“He turned his scars into stars,” Sharpton told those gathered, “and showed the nation a better way, and for that, the nation is in debt to Rodney King and to his family.”
Times columnist Sandy Banks contributed to this report.