First Discovery of King's Plagiarism
During the late 1980s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s papers were donated by his wife Coretta Scott King to the Stanford University's King Papers Project. As the papers were being organized and worked on, the staff of the project made a discovery that dismayed them — King's doctoral dissertation at Boston University, titled A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, included large sections from a dissertation written by another student (Jack Boozer) three years earlier at Boston University.
As Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project at Stanford University has written, "instances of textual appropriation can be seen in his earliest extant writings as well as his dissertation."
According to Ralph E. Luker, who worked on the King Papers Project directing the research on King's early life, King's paper The Chief Characteristics and Doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism (available here) was taken almost entirely from secondary sources. He writes:
"Moreover, the farther King went in his academic career, the more deeply ingrained the patterns of borrowing language without clear attribution became. Thus, the plagiarism in his dissertation seemed to be, by then, the product of his long established practice."
Boston University Investigation
In 1991 Boston University, where King got his Ph.D. in systematic theology, conducted an investigation that found he plagiarized major portions of his doctoral thesis from various philosophers who wrote about the topic:
A committee of scholars at Boston University concluded yesterday that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation, completed there in the 1950s.
BU provost Jon Westling accepted the panel's recommendation that a letter be attached to King's dissertation in the university library, noting that numerous passages lacked appropriate quotations and citations of sources. The letter was placed in the archives yesterday afternoon, a BU spokesman said.
Westling also accepted the committee's statement that "no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King's doctoral degree from Boston University" and the assertion that despite its flaws, the dissertation "makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship."
The investigatory committee, comprising three professors in the BU School of Theology and one from American University, was appointed by Westling last November after researchers at Stanford said they had discovered numerous instances of plagiarism in King's work as a graduate student.
While there was general agreement that King acted improperly, Clayborne Carson, head of the King Papers Project at Stanford where the plagiarism initially was uncovered, noted that King made no effort to conceal what he was doing, providing grounds for a belief that King was not willfully engaged in wrongdoing.
Westling said in a prepared statement yesterday that it was "impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources. The committee's findings, although important from the point of view of historical accuracy, do not affect Dr. King's greatness, not do they change the fact that Dr. King made an unequalled contribution to the cause of justice and equal rights in this nation."
John H. Cartwright, a member of the committee and Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Social Ethics at BU, said the committee had examined King's dissertation independently of the King Papers Project and "we did find serious improprieties."
The chair Cartwright occupies was created by the Boston University trustees after King's assassination. Cartwright was entering BU as a seminary student when King was finishing his doctorate.
"We had many of the same professors, we worked in the same atmosphere during our graduate studies," Cartwright said, and "under no circumstances would the atmosphere under which he did his work condone what Dr. King did. It's incredible. He was not unaware of the correct procedure. This wasn't just done out of ignorance."
The committee found that King "is responsible for knowingly misappropriating the borrowed materials that he failed to cite or to cite adequately." It found a pattern of appropriation of uncited material "that is a straightforward breach of academic norms and that constitutes plagiarism as commonly understood."
The letter to be attached to King's dissertation, Cartwright pointed out, "indicates there are serious improprieties and points readers to sources where they can find chapter and verse."
The committee found no grounds for charges raised last year that King drew his organization and chapter headings from another person's dissertation. The plagiarism, the panel said, was of passages from the works of philosophers whose concepts of God King was comparing in his work. The dissertation is titled "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman."
The committee also found no evidence that the professors reviewing King's dissertation had a double standard for African-American students and examined their work less critically than the work of whites. "Standards were applied with equal strictness to black as well as to white students," the panel concluded. "Black as well as white students failed out of the program."
Even though faculty supervision of King's work "failed to detect the large number of uncited borrowings that breached academic norms," the committee also found, the examining professors were not negligent "according to normal standards of supervision."
Chronology of the discovery of King's plagiarism
Most of this information comes from articles collected in Theodore Pappas' book The Martin Luther King Jr. Plagiarism Story (Rockford Institute, Rockford, IL, 1994). I am grateful to the Institute for providing a copy of this out-of-print work.
The Martin Luther King Papers Project is formed
David Garrow, in Bearing the Cross, relates how Ira Zepp, in an unpublished study, found that sections of King's Stride Towards Freedom are verbatim identical to passages from Paul Ramsay's Basic Christian Ethics and Anders Nygren's Eros and Agape. Garrow refrains from using the 'p' word, and his index calls the incident 'ghostwriting'
The King Papers Project receives the first of its over $500,000 of NEH funding
The King Papers project first discovers evidence of King's plagiarism.
According to Waldman, King's plagiarism was discussed in the presence of his widow, Coretta Scott King, in an all-day meeting in Atlanta. Mrs. King remained silent through most of the meeting, and has since declined to answer queries about her husband's plagiarism. The board decides to publish King's papers with footnotes fully detailing the plagiarism, and to separately publish an article outlining its extent.
December 3, 1989
Frank Johnson, in the British Sunday Telegraph , reveals that Ralph Luker, associate editor of the King Papers Project, has informed him that King had borrowed heavily from the thesis of Jack Boozer, fellow Boston University theology student and later Professor of Religion at Emory. Luker temporizes, promising that full facts will be available in nine months. Claiborne Carson, director of the Project, says when asked about the charge of plagiarism "It's really not true...what we're talking about is the question of whether there was an adequate citation of all sources".
Major American newspapers totally ignore the article.
January 22, 1990
The Liberty Lobby's The Spotlight prints a front-page story on King's plagiarized thesis, based on the Sunday Telegraph column.
March 1 1990
According to Babington, King's plagiarism is widely discussed at the Southern Intellectual History Circle, meeting at Chapel Hill. Luker, who attended, says the story was 'academic cocktail-party gossip' at the time. UNC sociologist John Shelton Reed hears the story, and cites it in a gossip column for Chronicles , the magazine of the Rockford Institute. He later balks at publishing after receiving a stern letter from B.U. acting president Jon Westling.
According to Babington, Carson's team informs the National Endowment for the Humanities of the plagiarism. NEH decides not to divulge the information.
Washington Post reporter Dan Balz approaches Carson with questions about the plagiarism, but is misled by Carson, who admits he tried to 'play it down'.
According to Waldman, Carson submitted an article to Journal of American History, but it was rejected because Carson was unwilling to 'take a firm stand' on the question of whether King's thesis was plagiarized.
Thomas Fleming writes in the conservative magazine Chronicles that King's doctorate should be regarded as a courtesy title, since it had been recently revealed that he had plagiarized his dissertation.
October 5 1990
Boston University President Jon Westling sends a letter to Chronicles (published in the January 1991 issue) denying Fleming's charge. Westling, in an apparent bare-faced lie, says that King's dissertation has been 'scrupulously examined and reexamined by scholars', and that 'not a single instance of plagiarism of any sort has been identified....not a single reader has ever found any nonattributed or misattributed quotations, misleading paraphrases, or thoughts borrowed without due scholarly reference in any of its 343 pages'.
Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Waldman calls Carson. Carson tries stonewalling him, but Waldman informs Carson he has a copy of Jack Boozer's dissertation, from which King stole heavily. Carson decides the game is up, and agrees to cooperate with Waldman in breaking the story.
November 9, 1990
Peter Waldman, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, 'breaks' the story in the American mass media. The article quotes Claiborne Carson finally admitting King's plagiarism. The article soft-pedals King's 'borrowings', and cites Keith Miller's thesis that King's 'voice merging' stems from the oral traditions of the black church. The article says that 'most of King's papers had many original thoughts', but often 'borrowed without citing'. According to Waldman, Carson has asked staff members to refrain from use of the 'p'-word around the office.
November 10 1990
Other major American newspapers followed the WSJ with front-page stories on the plagiarism
Theodore Pappas, in a article in Chronicles written before the WSJ article, compares sections of King's thesis in detail with that of Jack Boozer, showing for the first time the enormous extent of King's plagiarism.
Charles Babington in the New Republic reveals how several American newspapers (Washington Post, New York Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New Republic) had the story since at least Spring 1990), but either out of ineptitude or political correctness did nothing with it.
A Boston University committee reports that while 45% of the first half and 21% of the second half of King's thesis was plagiarized, it was still an original contribution to scholarship, and his degree should not be revoked. The true extent of King's plagiarism is much greater, and comparing his thesis with its sources, one can only conclude that BU's conclusion was purely political and academically dishonest.
King chose the topic of his dissertation - A comparison of the conception of God in the thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman - in the winter of 1953. He contacted the two proposed subjects in the summer of '53 to ask them if anyone had tried similarly to compare their ideas. His thesis outline was approved in April 1954, and the first draft of the thesis was produced by November 1954. His readers suggested a few small corrections and the final draft was submitted to Boston University in April 1955.
The King Papers project relates how King managed to generate 'his' first draft so efficiently. He took notes from his sources onto a series of notecards, and then transcribed the notecards directly into his thesis. Sometimes he didn't indicate on the cards that what he was writing was a direct transcription; sometimes he did include quotation marks on the cards, but then omitted them in the thesis.
The dissertation is a result heavily plagiarized. The King Papers Project in 1991 estimated that 52% of Chapter 2 of the thesis was plagiarized - transcribed from the work of other authors without any indication that the section was an exact reproduction. Looking over the complete annotated version of his thesis, it is clear that in places page upon successive page is composed of concatenated sequences of stolen quotations, with King contributing literally nothing to the text other than by arranging the words of others. A full estimate of the proportion of King's original work in the thesis will require a computer analysis, but it is not high. The main sources for King's appropriations were:
- Various published works by Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, the subjects of the dissertation
- "Tillich's role in Contemporary Theology", an essay by Walter Marshall Horton in The theology of Paul Tillich , edited by Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall (New York: Macmillan, 1952). Horton was a favorite 'source' of King's; he'd cribbed large chunks of Horton's work in previous graduate student essays, and in fact virtually the entire first draft of his introduction was swiped from this article.
- Several other theologians and philosophers, and, worst of all...
- "The Place of Reason in Paul Tillich's Concept of God", by Jack Stewart Boozer (Ph. D. dissertation, Boston University, 1952). Yes, that's right, a hefty chunk of King's thesis was transcribed from a recent thesis of another Boston University student. Jack Boozer was a theology student who interrupted his studies at B.U. to serve as an army chaplain in Europe from 1944 to 1947. He returned to B.U in 1948, and got his Ph. D. in 1952. He went on to be a Professor of Religion at Emory. In his introduction King had the nerve to write "In 1952 a very fine dissertation was done in this school by Jack Boozer...". He must certainly have thought so; he used literally thousands of words from that dissertaion in his own thesis!
- Carson, Clayborne. Editing Martin Luther King, Jr.: Political and Scholarly Issues. Retrieved on 2008-01-21.
- Boston University. King Encyclopedia. Stanford University. Retrieved on 2008-01-21.
- Ralph E. Luker (2004-12-21). On Martin Luther King's Plagiarism .... CLIOPATRIA: A Group Blog. History News Network hnn.us. Retrieved on 2008-01-21.
- Radin, Charles A.. "Panel Confirms Plagiarism by King at BU", The Boston Globe, 1991-10-11, p. 1.
- Ralph E. Luker (2004-12-21). Grades and Patronage. CLIOPATRIA: A Group Blog. History News Network hnn.us. Retrieved on 2008-01-21.
- Keith D. Miller:Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968): Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues. Retrieved on 2008-01-21.
- "To Their Dismay, King Scholars Find a Troubling Pattern". Wall Street Journal, Nov 9 1990, p. A1.
- Theodore Pappas. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Plagiarism Story. ISBN 0-9619364-5-2
- Charles A. Radin. "Panel confirms plagiarism by King at BU". Boston Globe, Oct 11 1991, p. 1.
- Clayborne Carson; Peter Holloran; Ralph E. Luker; Penny Russell. Martin Luther King, Jr., as Scholar: A Reexamination of His Theological Writings. The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Jun., 1991), pp. 93-105.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project. The Student Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research. The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Jun., 1991), pp. 23-31.
- David Levering Lewis. Failing to Know Martin Luther King, Jr. The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Jun., 1991), pp. 81-85.
- David Thelen. Becoming Martin Luther King Jr: An Introduction. The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Jun., 1991), pp. 11-22