Excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr. (& L.H De Wolff)
Allegations: Plagiarism in college and graduate school papers, including his doctoral dissertation on "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman"; Verbatim thefts also discovered in political speeches including the famous "I Have a Dream" speech (see Pappas' Plagiarism and the Culture War, Hallberg revised and expanded version, p. 133)
It was the British press which first broke the news with regard to King's plagiarism, an indication of just how sensitive an issue this was for American newspapers. An article in the December 3rd (1989) edition of the Sunday Telegraph by Frank Johnson asked, "Martin Luther King--Was He a Plagiarist?"
But it was not until November 9, 1990 that a major U.S. media outlet released the story on King's plagiarism--even though this story had been known for over a year in the newsrooms of major newspapers. In the U.S., The Wall Street Journal was the first to go public with a front page article entitled, "To Their Dismay, King Scholars Find a Troubling Pattern--Civil Rights Leader was Lax in Attributing Some Parts of His Academic Papers".
This story was definitely a hot potato--too hot to handle for the same institutions which had "lionized" and deified a mere mortal.
The response of academia was particularly appalling:
"They lied, they told half-truths, they made up fables, they did everything they could but address facts. In the face of their own university's rules against plagiarism, Boston University's academic authorities and professors somehow found excuses for King's plagiarism. They found extenuating circumstances . . . they compromised their own university's integrity . . . [and] called into question the very standing of the university as a place where cheating is penalized and misrepresentation condemned" (Jacob Neusner, in the Foreward to Theodore Pappas' The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story).
There were scores of responses written after these discoveries of verbatim theft by King, basically in defense of plagiarism. As Neusner notes, "To defend King's plagiarism, plagiarism finds itself cleaned up and made a virtue of blacks". Authors such as Keith Miller used the black preaching tradition and "oral culture" as an excuse for King's somehow having been held to a lower academic standard than what might have been expected of whites at a place such as Boston University in the 1950s.
Critics such as Barry Gross delivered a scathing indictment of the scholarly incompetence at Boston University which led to King's receiving a PhD awarded for a dissertation containing extensive amounts of plagiarism. Compounding the incompetence, the plagiarism in King's dissertation on "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman" was from another theology student (Jack Boozer) who had had the same advisor as King just three years previously, namely Professor L. Harald De Wolff.
Gross delivers some pretty damning speculations as to why De Wolff never noticed or responded to King's plagiarism of Boozer:
"So how did King's plagiarism get by? Well, there are three possibilities: Professor De Wolff neglected to read either or both theses, in which case he was incompetent, or Professor De Wolff read them both and failed to notice the plagiarism, in which case, also, he was incompetent, or Professor De Wolff noticed the plagiarism but did not think it serious enough to mention, in which case, too, he was incompetent. There is a fourth hypothesis that is possibly even more damning: that Professor De Wolff noticed the plagiarism but did not think it mattered for a black man destined to be a preacher to be held to a rigorous scholarly standard" (From Gross's review of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Plagiarism Story).
The final hypothesis mentioned by Gross seems to be quite plausible since Theodore Pappas alludes in his work to rumours suggesting that King had, in fact, been advised by his dissertation committee to cite his sources according to academic convention. Quite unfortunately, he did not do this, and his dissertation committee never followed up to see if their advice had been heeded, if, in fact, such advice had ever been given.
Shortly after the stonewalling and coverup attempted by those overseeing the King Papers Project (Clayborne Carson of Stanford University, and Ralph Luker of Emory University), two important books were published by Theodore Pappas: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Plagiarism Story and Plagiarism and the Culture War. In the years since the discovery of King's plagiaries, a number of other excellent research projects have resulted in dissertations and reports on different aspects of the plagiaries of Martin Luther King, Jr.
What this ongoing research seems to most clearly portray is not just the shortcomings of Martin Luther King, Jr. himself, but the failures of academia in confronting intellectual fraud and in holding scholars to high standards of academic integrity whatever their racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
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All the more reason to question: Martin Luther King Day?