Guest column by Gerry Harbison HARBISON is a professor of
"... plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize - only be sure always to
call it please 'research.'" "Lobachevsky," by Tom Lehrer
In 1988, the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project made a
discovery that shocked it to its core.
The Project, a group of academics and students, had been
entrusted by Coretta Scott King with the task of editing King's
papers for publication. As they examined King's student essays
and his dissertation, they gradually became aware that King was
guilty of massive plagiarism - that is, he had copied the words
of other authors word-for-word, without making it clear that
what he was writing was not his own.
The Project spent years uncovering the full extent of King's
plagiarism. In November 1990, word leaked to the press, and they
had to go public. The revelations caused a minor scandal and
then were promptly forgotten.
Indeed, I had never heard of them until I read a student letter
to the Daily Nebraskan three weeks ago. That letter sent me in
search of the truth about Martin Luther King Jr.'s student
Like most graduate students, King spent the first half of his
doctoral work taking courses in his degree area, theology. His
surviving papers from that period show that from the very
beginning he was transcribing articles by eminent theologians,
often word for word, and representing them as his own work.
After completing his course work, graduate students usually
write a dissertation or thesis, supposedly an independent and
original contribution to scholarship. King's thesis was anything
but original. In fact, the sheer extent of his plagiarism is
Page after page contains nothing but direct, verbatim
transcriptions of the work of others. In 1990, the King Project
estimated that less than half of some chapters was actually
written by King himself. Since then, even more of his
"borrowings" have been traced.
Calculating the exact extent of his plagiarism will require a
computer analysis, but having looked over Chapter III in detail,
I estimate that at least three quarters of it was stolen from
King stole from the subjects of his dissertation, the
theologians Tillich and Wieman. He copied the writings of other
theologians - passages from philosophy textbooks. But most
unforgivably of all, thousands of words in paragraph-sized
chunks, were taken from the thesis of a fellow student, Jack
Boozer, an ex-army chaplain who returned to Boston University
after the war to get his degree.
We even know how he did it, for King was systematic in his
plagiarism. He copied significant phrases, sentences or whole
paragraphs from the books he was consulting onto a set of index
cards. "Writing" a thesis was then a matter of arranging these
cards into a meaningful order.
Sometimes he linked the stolen parts together with an occasional
phrase of his own, but as often as not he left the words
completely unchanged. The index cards still survive, with their
damning evidence intact.
King fooled everybody: his adviser, his thesis reader and King
scholars for more than 30 years. Nor did he stop after
graduation; as early as the 1970s, King scholar Ira Zepp noticed
that sections of King's first published book Striding Towards
Freedom were taken verbatim from Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros
and Paul Ramsay's Basic Christian Ethics (sheesh!).
Zepp, as so many have done since then, remained silent.
Everything I've written above can easily be verified in a couple
of hours in Love Library. None of it comes from right-wing
scandalmongers who might have a vested interest in damaging
But if King's plagiarism is so serious and so extensive, why do
we so rarely hear about it? Partly it is because the American
public thinks of plagiarism as an obscure issue that only an
egghead professor could get steamed up about.
And to some extent they're right. King's academic dishonesty is
after all mostly irrelevant to his life's work. The Civil Rights
movement of the 1950s and 1960s did us all a great good by
ending the greatest social evil of mid-20th century America -
legally sanctioned segregation and racial discrimination. That
movement is not in the least diminished by the ethical
shortcomings of one of its leaders.
But more than that, American culture has personified the virtues
of the Civil Rights movement - tolerance, nonviolence, and
insistence on the integrity of the individual - in Martin Luther
King Jr. That mythic King bears little resemblance to the real,
the historical Martin Luther King Jr.
It would be safe and easy for UNL to play along with this
But we shouldn't.
Plagiarism isn't a mere peccadillo. It is a direct threat to our
academic integrity. When a student plagiarizes, he undermines
academic standards by receiving a grade for ideas or expression
that are not his own, and he cheats other students who have
earned their grades honestly.
When a scholar plagiarizes, he defrauds other scholars of due
credit for their work, and he contaminates scholarship by making
it difficult or impossible to trace the evolution of ideas.
Remember how major-league baseball banned Pete Rose? Rose
gambled on games, a minor transgression to most, but one that
baseball felt undermined its the very integrity. In the same
way, plagiarism subverts our integrity. Surely UNL can at least
aspire to the same standards as organized baseball?
More than this, as scholars we have a responsibility to separate
myth from truth. For example, we insist on making a distinction
between creation myths and the scientific truth of evolution.
Even though some of our students adhere to the biblical story of
creation - and when we teach evolution we may cause offense and
do violence to their beliefs - we can't fail to teach and
research the truth out of a misplaced 'sensitivity.'
In the same way, we have a responsibility to confront Martin
Luther King Jr. as the man he was, not the icon some of us
Our chancellor insists we can diversify UNL without compromising
academic standards. But if so, how can we, in the name of
diversity, declare an academic holiday to honor a man whose
entire career was marred by the most blatant academic dishonesty?
I personally have had one student expelled, and flunked several
others, for turning in plagiarized papers. Can we really look
those students in the face, insist that what they did was
seriously wrong, and then in good conscience vote for a King
I don't think so.