Philadelphia defense attorney Michael Coard says King certainly has a place. "When we look at heroes, we think about people like slain civil rights activists [James] Chaney, [Michael] Schwerner and [Andrew] Goodman. We rarely hear about somebody being the spark toward changing things," Coard says. "Rodney King wasn't a doctor or a lawyer. He represented the average black man in America. That's why so many people could feel him."
Looking back now at all the interviews he did, all the photographs he posed for, it was as though King were on a farewell mission, reminding us he didn't take his beating in vain, that it fundamentally changed the Los Angeles Police Department's long-standing brutal treatment of African American men.
King had reluctantly accepted his role as driving-while-black survival guide. When I asked him how my son should respond when pulled over, he replied: "Be overly humble, answer every question."
Then he shared a piece of advice that turned out to be prophetic.
"Hit a recording device before you get pulled over."
Antiracial profiling app?
As though on cue, the New York Civil Liberties Union this month announced its Stop and Frisk Watch, a new smartphone app that enables New Yorkers to record police officers engaged in abusive misconduct.
We sure could use an app for that here. Talk about racial profiling. In the disproportionate number of police stops of black and Latino drivers in Philadelphia, there was no discernible cause, which meant officers used another standard. That's what civil rights lawyer David Rudovsky told me last year.
A civil rights suit filed by the Philadelphia ACLU last year forced Mayor Nutter to implement new checks and balances on the Police Department's stop-and-frisk procedures, including additional reviews and officer training, and establishing a database.
But Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York chapter of the ACLU, tells me the videos collected with Stop and Frisk Watch (available for now only on Android phones) will go beyond mere data and possibly lead to policy changes.
And she has King to thank for that. And George Holliday, who shot the 81-second video of King's beating all those years ago.
Lauding King and Holliday as unsung heroes, Lieberman noted that Holliday's video "marked the turning point in police accountability. It demonstrated for the first time that emerging technology could provide the kind of documentation of police abuses that is so much more powerful than 'he said, she said.' "
Sure, King played his life out for the world to see, and it wasn't pretty. He drank too much - a well-documented fact, as most of his arrests through the years were alcohol-related.
Toxicology reports are pending, but I wouldn't be surprised if drinking had something to do with his death.
There are no perfect heroes. Which is why history should treat King kindly, flaws and all.
After all, God always uses the least of us to make profound statements to the rest of the world.
Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.