CNN is under fire for a story this week suggesting Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to our political discourse today, part because ‘he was a socialist before it was cool,’ a pronouncement that Cold War scholar Dr. Paul Kengor says is a radical departure from what liberals claimed for decades following King’s death and he indicts our education system for anyone thinking socialism is “cool.”
On Monday, in connection with the federal holiday commemorating King’s birthday and his civil rights legacy, CNN’s John Blake wrote a story chronicling three ways that King, “speaks to our time.” The second contention stated that King “was a socialist before it was cool.”
In his piece, Blake cited several known positions that King held, including advocacy for a “universal health care and education, a guaranteed annual income, and the nationalization of some industries,” wrote Blake, noting that King also called for wealth redistribution at times.
Kengor says King’s sentiments on those issues are not new, but he says the left’s willingness to brand King a socialist is a big shift.
“[Blake] said, ‘There was a time in American politics when calling someone a socialist was a slur.’ I would add there was once upon a time in America when if you called Martin Luther King, Jr. a socialist, it was a racial slur. You weren’t allowed to do that,” said Kengor.
Kengor says King’s socialist positions were an issue of fierce debate in the 1980’s during the debate to create a federal holiday in King’s honor. Skeptics of the idea cited their discomfort with some of King’s positions on economic issues, and were roundly condemned as bigots or engaging in McCarthyism.
Since King’s passing, political activists and politicians on both sides of the aisle have suggested that King would support their particular issue. Kengor says the reality is much more complicated. he says on cultural issues, King was rather conservative.
Noting that King talked often about laws being unjust if they violated a person’s conscience, Kengor says he’s pretty confident about where King would line up on some key issues.
“I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t be willing to defend pastors and religious people who want to cite their freedom of religion and freedom of conscience when it comes to begging not to be forced by the state to make a cake for a ceremony that violates their sacred religious beliefs,” said Kengor.
Even on economic issues, Kengor says the King record is mixed.
“I don’t know to what extent we would call him a socialist, because I’ve seen other King statements that aren’t very socialistic. He would definitely be more of a mixed bag in where we would want to place him on which side of the aisle,” said Kengor.
However, Kengor says regardless of where King stood on a variety of economic issues, it is clearly proper to honor the civil rights leader for his leadership and sacrifices for the cause of racial equality.
“We do celebrate him for his racial achievements. That’s really the key point,” said Kengor.
Following the posting of Blake’s story, a Twitter user named Allie Lynn responded by saying, “The Venezuelan people dying because of socialism would probably disagree about their government being ‘cool.'”
Blake then replied saying, “I’m not sure a lot of people would link what’s happening to Venezuela to socialism; in fact everything I’ve read and talking to people from there attributes there collapse to other problems.”
Kengor is appalled, and suggests Blake visit the tomb of the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
“He can go there and say, ‘You know, sir, what you called twenty-first century socialism, which is even listed at Wikipedia with your name next to it because you coined the frame, it’s not socialism.’ Blake could provide the correctives and explain to the ghost of Chavez and also to the live body of Nicholas Maduro that they’re not actually doing socialism,” said Kengor.
Whether or not Blake was being flippant about socialism being “cool,” many millennials are more favorable towards socialism than capitalism. A majority between ages 18-29 oppose capitalism. A 2016 poll commissioned by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found a third of millennials and 28 percent of the full population thought George W. Bush killed more people than Josef Stalin, who some scholars believe murdered 60-70 million of his own people.
Kengor says students are taught well about the horrors of Nazi Germany and the ten million or more slaughtered in the Holocaust, but he believes our children are done a great disservice by not learning about the murderous trail left behind by communism.
“But that’s nowhere near the number that Stalin killed. It’s nowhere near the number that Mao killed. It’s nowhere near the percentage of his population that Pol Pot killed in Cambodia in four years, and on and on and on. They haven’t learned any of this stuff,” said Kengor.
Kengor blames schools, especially universities for ignoring or distorting the truth. However, he also has a firm message for the parents who send their children to such schools.
“Socialism is enjoying a popular resurgence. It’s very sad. That has to do with our colossal failure in education in this country. And people, if you’re sending your kid to one of these colleges where the kid is coming out a socialist and you’re paying the college to do it, shame on you.. Shame on you,” said Kengor.