In one of the most disturbing images from the Los Angeles riots, six black assailants dragged Reginald Denny, a 33-year-old truck driver, out of his truck in South Los Angeles and bashed his head in with a brick. A television chopper broadcast the violence live. The attack happened shortly after not-guilty verdicts were handed down in the racially charged trial of the police beating of Rodney King, which kicked off six days of rioting that left dozens dead and thousands injured.
About a mile and a half away, Titus Murphy and his then-girlfriend Terri Barnett were watching the Denny attack on live television. Murphy, who was an unemployed engineer at the time, couldn't believe what he saw.
"When this gentleman was getting beat something was just telling me this isn't right, this isn't what it's all about," he told Yahoo News 20 years later. "When he got hit in the head with the brick something told me to go down there. I just reacted."
Murphy and Barnett drove about a block away from the now infamous corner of Normandie and Florence to see if the rioters would let them get any closer. Murphy saw that Denny had managed to drag himself back into the cab of the truck, which was moving very slowly. Murphy ran to the passenger side and jumped on the running board; he saw a woman named Lei Yuille comforting Denny inside the cab. Just then, a hulking guy named Bobby Green leaped on the running board of the other side. The two stared at each other through the windows, each fearing the other was a rioter.
"I asked him, 'Who are you? What are you going to do?'" Murphy says. "He said, 'What are you going to do?' I didn't know he was thinking the same thing I was thinking. I figured I had to take him on, he figured he had to take me on. We were both over 6 feet tall. I told him I was going to drive the truck and he said, 'I'm a truck driver.' That was the end of that."
Green jumped in and drove the massive truck a terrifying three miles to the hospital, with Murphy's girlfriend Barnett guiding the way by driving in the car in front. Murphy clung to the outside of the truck for the entire journey, feigning to be a rioter by pounding on the outside of the vehicle as if he had taken it for loot.
"There were cars approaching us and swinging bats and sticks and guns and stuff," he said. "I had to pretend that I was part of the riot so that the people in the cars wouldn't try to take us on or try to take advantage of the truck again. I started beating on the truck like it was mine. The trick really worked."
From his position on the running board, Murphy was also able to guide Green, who couldn't see through the truck's cracked windows. "Each one of us could not carry on the task without the other," says Murphy. "Bobby couldn't drive the truck without me on the outside. Mr. Denny was attended to from the inside [by Yuille], and we couldn't drive the truck without Terry in the front of us."
The result was a perfect collaboration. "We all came together as a team," he says. "It was like it was meant to be."
After extensive surgery, Denny survived the beating, but his speech and ability to walk were damaged permanently. His four rescuers, who were all black, became a symbol of hope in the devastating violence that engulfed the city for three days.
"I was just helping a person who was in need," says Murphy. "I didn't look at his race at all. Never thought about it once."
Murphy and the three other rescuers haven't kept in touch, he says, but he remembers them fondly. Denny has moved to Arizona and shunned media attention for most of the past 20 years, although he did reportedly accept an apology from one of his attackers.
Murphy now lives in Escondido with his wife and children. He worries that the anger of 20 years ago could bubble up again today. America still has a class of "have-nots" who need better opportunities to get ahead, he says. "In every major city in America and in cities all over the world the same thing could happen," says Murphy,"until we decide as a people that we work together and stop looking at things as race but realize we're all one."
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