Keenan Anderson and King’s “Other America” by Efran Menny*

Reprinted Essay by Efran Menny for our Continuing Lenten Reflection*

…Many witnessed the final moments of Keenan Anderson, a 31-year-old father and teacher tased repeatedly… by an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department. He died just hours later. When the incident went viral on social media, immediately my heart sank.

As an educational professional, I thought about the effect his death would have on his students, colleagues, and school community. When we lose a beloved teacher who is wholeheartedly dedicated to the mission of empowering our community, losses like this can be devastating. Also, as the country grapples with the embarrassing Black male teacher shortage, we lost an educator of remarkable character.

As it concerns justice, Anderson’s death signifies the continual assault on the dignity of Black life in America. As with many of the incidents with police killings, the footage reveals an utter lack of regard for addressing the ingrained disenfranchisement of Black Americans. It highlights the divide that has always existed in the country. Many would argue that the related experiences and outcomes are tantamount to living in an entirely different country with entirely different standards.

As Martin Luther King Jr. Day came and went, our nation reflected on this extraordinary global figure. Conservatives pivoted to a post-racial snippet of only one speech that would absolve the nation of its racism. On the other hand, liberals elevated his profound social influence but fail to capture the essence of his message.

Like other Black leaders of his era, such as Fred Hampton and Malcolm X, King was knowledgeable about the intersection of capitalism, classism, and racism. As a result, he knew that solidarity among oppressed people was essential for advancing progress for human rights and ensuring a robust social democracy that distributed wealth and opportunity equitably.

In the post-Civil Rights era, King delivered one of his most impassioned speeches, “The Other America.” In this groundbreaking exhortation to the country, he emphasized the chasm of economic opportunity for the nation’s Black and poorest members, the injustice of continued racial inequality, and even chided the growing military-industrial complex.

When addressing the standing struggle for the fate of Black and Whites, he enlightened the conscience of the country about the interdependence of the struggle for justice.

“Integration must be seen also in political terms where there is shared power, where Black men and White men share power together to build a new and a great nation.”

When I think about the tragic death and short life of my fellow Black teacher Keenan Anderson, I wonder: where is the massive outrage from non-Black voices? In the Kingian perspective, if our fate is intertwined and our justice hinges on a mutual upholding, we need non-Black voices—including Christians and others of goodwill—to clamor with a resounding condemnation in this moment.

From a historical perspective, various groups have been at the forefront of receiving monetary and social gains from the American project, while Black Americans consistently have been at the back of the line waiting for residual crumbs of social progress. Other groups have amassed privilege, status, and acceptance in extraordinary ways since their journey to America. It’s with this truth that we recognize our need for authentic allies to use their power and privilege to dismantle and abolish systems that harm not just Black residents but everyone.

Even with King’s vision of a unified struggle, he acknowledged that striving for “genuine equality” was a challenging work. At the root of this challenge is seeing our neighbor with intrinsic worth and dignity. From this perspective, once we see our neighbor as someone imbued with sacredness, the obligation to provide access to a fair share of resources and justice follows.

Favoring the rich, economic deprivation, systemic racism, poor access to high-quality housing, education, and even police brutality are offenses to the human person made in the image of God. These issues were present during King’s era and in our post-integration society; they’re equally pressing today. If we genuinely proclaim the inherent value of the human, yet disregard their predicament, our adherence to the greatest commandment has been a superficial act of devotion.

Even with a powerful faith that compels us to service and stewardship, the other America showcases our division. In fear of being associated with our struggle and condition, many don’t want to be linked to Black Americans. No one wants to come onto our side of the tracks. With cases like Keenan’s, when we could affect wide-scale accountability and criminal justice overhaul, our struggle falls on deaf ears.

King realized that a multiracial, multireligious and multigenerational allegiance was foundational for ushering in equality and macro-level change. In keeping with his vision for Black liberation, King would be appalled by the constant modern assault on Black life. He would implore the hearts and minds of the nation to wake up, adhering to a higher law of obedience that sees Black Americans as deserving of justice.

King’s unwavering dedication to the social, economic, and political rights of his people is inseparable from that vision. Though the holiday has passed this year, the legacy, vision, and ministry of Dr. King are present here and now. He dedicated his life to the advancement of the core belief that Black lives matter.

If we want to follow in his steps, advocating for Keenan Anderson and his other slain Black brothers and sisters, we must confess that empowering their community is how we deconstruct the “other America.”

* Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the “Saintly Witnesses” podcast.  This essay first appeared in the Black Catholic Messenger, June 19, 2023, and is reprinted here with the permission of the editor. I am deeply grateful both for that permission and for the essay itself, spoken from the frontlines of discipleship in our time. Who will listen?  Will I?  Will you?  — P.S.