Plagiarism Seen by Scholars In King's Ph.D. Dissertation

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Ronny Koch

Jan 23, 2022, 11:45:02 PM1/23/22
Published: November 10, 1990

Torn between loyalty to his subject and to his discipline, the
editor of the papers of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
reluctantly acknowledged yesterday that substantial parts of Dr.
King's doctoral dissertation and other academic papers from his
student years appeared to have been plagiarized.

The historian, Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at
Stanford University who was chosen in 1985 by Dr. King's widow,
Coretta Scott King, to head the King Papers Project, said that
analysis of the papers by researchers working on the project had
uncovered concepts, sentences and longer passages taken from
other sources without attribution throughout Dr. King's writings
as a theology student.

"We found that there was a pattern of appropriation, of textual
appropriation," said the 46-year-old historian, who was active
in the civil rights movement and has written extensively on
black history. He spoke at a news conference at Stanford, called
after an article in The Wall Street Journal yesterday disclosed
details of the project's findings. "By the strictest definition
of plagiarism -- that is, any appropriation of words or ideas --
there are instances of plagiarism in these papers." A Lack of

Although he said that he believed Dr. King had acted
unintentionally, Mr. Carson said that Dr. King had been
sufficiently well acquainted with academic principles and
procedures to have understood the need for extensive footnotes,
and he was at a loss to explain why Dr. King had not used them.

Mr. Carson and other scholars who have seen the papers declined
to say how great a percentage of the material had been
plagiarized, but they said it was enough to indicate a serious
violation of academic principles.

Officials at Boston University, which awarded Dr. King his
doctorate in 1955, announced yesterday that a committee of four
scholars had been formed to investigate the dissertation. But it
is not likely, even if plagiarism is proved, that the Ph.D.
degree in theology would be revoked, because neither Dr. King
nor his dissertation adviser is alive to defend the work.

The controversy comes after a series of allegations over the
past year and a half about Mr. King's extramarital sexual habits
and conflicts within his family. While not detracting from his
accomplishments as a leader in the civil rights movement and
winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the controversies may
tarnish the myth of the man. Dr. King as Role Model

"It really in some ways is not at all connected to his public
greatness," said David J. Garrow, a professor of political
science at the City University of New York, whose biography of
Dr. King, "Bearing the Cross," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.
Mr. Garrow is a member of the King Papers Project's advisory
board and has reviewed the papers in question. "But this serious
an offense really does alter how we have to evaluate him,
especially in the context of telling 10-year-olds who they
should look up to."

But to many supporters of Dr. King, the allegations are another
attempt to detract from his accomplishments.

"Dr. King as a young fellow may have overlooked some footnotes,"
said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by Dr. King.
"But history is caught up in his footprints, and will be hardly
disturbed by the absence of some footnotes." Donation of Papers

Scholars at the King Papers Project said the fact that Dr. King
donated his papers to Boston University six years before he was
assassinated in 1968 indicated that he knew future scholars
would look at his work and he not think he had done anything

In the 343-page dissertation, titled "A Comparison of the
Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry
Nelson Wieman," Dr. King appears to have used many of the same
words and titles as another doctoral dissertation written three
years earlier by Jack Boozer, under the guidance of the same
adviser, L. Harold DeWolf. The earlier work was cited in Dr.
King's bibliography, but footnoted only twice, The Journal

According to Mr. Carson, in certain sections of the paper
dealing with complex theological conceptions, Dr. King lifted
entire sentences and some longer passages from the works of
Tillich, Mr. Boozer and other authors.

In one passage, for example, Dr. King wrote, "The basic
characteristic of the symbol is its innate power." Mr. Boozer,
discussing the same concept, wrote, "A characteristic of the
symbol is its innate power."

In his academic papers Dr. King occasionally used another
author's argument as his own, the researchers found, and even
where he did use citations and footnotes, his reliance on
previous material was often more extensive than he explicitly

But Mr. Carson said it was important to understand the scholarly
context of the work. He said it was not uncommon, especially in
dealing with abstract theological concepts, for interpreters to
rely on and even paraphrase the same material; in this case, the
conception of God as set forth by Tillich.

"That doesn't excuse King, because clearly students are supposed
to put even difficult and complex thoughts into their own
words," Mr. Carson said in a telephone interview. "But Tillich
is particularly difficult because his writing is fairly dense."
Discovery of Similarities

Graduate students at Stanford who were working on the papers
project first noticed similarities in the dissertation to other
works as early as 1988. They then investigated other academic
papers, finding a recurrent pattern.

The findings were presented to the project's advisory board of
scholars in October 1989, but Mr. Carson, as senior editor,
decided not to make public any details until the first
installment of the collected papers was published. The original
date for publication was the end of this year.

Mr. Carson said yesterday that the first two volumes of the 14-
volumne series -- covering Dr. King's early life up to 1955, the
year of the dissertation -- were now expected to be published,
with footnotes nearly as extensive as the text itself, in 1992.

Scholars familiar with the papers say the academic works are Dr.
King's least important writings and show very little of the
dramatic orator who was to emerge so forcefully in later years.
Mr. Garrow, Dr. King's biographer, described the dissertation as
"dry as bones," and said that was why no one had ever published

Mr. Garrow, said that as far back as 1970 he was aware that
parts of books and articles published by Dr. King after he left
Boston University probably had been written by others. He said
Dr. King's speeches also borrowed from others because in the
oral tradition in which Dr. King lived, it was common for
ministers and preachers to adopt as their own the words of
prominent men who had come before them.

Mr. Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
agreed. "Preachers have an old saying," he said. "The first time
they use somebody else's work, they give credit. The second
time, they say some thinker said it. The third time they just
say it." Book to Examine Borrowings

According to The Wall Street Journal article, Keith Miller, a
professor of rhetoric at Arizona State University, has written a
book, soon to be published, that will outline how Dr. King
borrowed liberally from others, even in some of his most famous

In trying to explain why the young Dr. King had relied so
heavily in his academic writings on the work of others, those
involved speculate that it was perhaps just the strain of that
time in his life. Dr. King never intended to be a university
scholar, and wrote most of his dissertation while working as
pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

While academic experts will resolve the extent of the plagiarism
and the validity of the doctoral degree, the allegations will
raise more questions about the character of Dr. King.

In 1989 the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, in his autobiography
"And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," published by Harper & Row,
stated that Dr. King engaged in extramarital sex on the night
before he was killed. Dr. King's son, Dexter Scott King, was
also involved in a recent controversy. In August 1989, he was
made president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for
Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, the site of Dr. King's
crypt. But in a few weeks he resigned in what was reported as a
family dispute over the direction the center should take. Widow
Declines to Comment

Mrs. King, who set up the papers project in 1984 to assure that
her husband's scattered writings and speeches were collected and
edited by reliable scholars, would not comment on the latest
controversy, referring all questions to Mr. Carson at Stanford.

In October 1989, the editors discussed preliminary manuscripts
of the King papers with the project's advisory board, which, in
addition to Mrs. King and Mr. Garrow, includes 11 recognized
scholars and 8 other associates of Dr. King.

Shaken by the allegations, Mr. Garrow said he had been
reconsidering his opinion of Dr. King.

"This has altered my judgment of him as a person," Mr. Garrow
said, "though it hasn't shaken my tremendous regard for his
courage and dedication to his movement."

Photo: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (The New York Times,
1956)(pg1); ::There are instances of plagiarism in these
papers," said Clayborne Carson, who studied the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.'s doctoral dissertation. (Associated Press) (pg.
10) Graphic: "Examining 2 Dissertations" In his 1955 doctoral
thesis, entitled "A Comparison of the Conception of God in the
Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman," Martin Luther
King Jr. mentioned secondary literature that had been helpful to
him, including another doctoral dissertation on Tillich written
three years earlier by Jack Bozzer, like a King a graduate
student at Boston University. King appropriated many passages
from Bozzer's dissertation without footnoting them. An example:
KING: Tillich insists that a symbol is more than a merely
technical sign. The basic characteristic of the symbol is its
inate power. A symbol possesses a necessary character. It cannot
be exchanged. A sign, on the contrary, is impotent and can be
exchanged at will. A religious symbol is not the creation of a
subjective desire or work. If the symbol loses its ontological
grounding, it declines and becomes a mere "thing," a sign
impotent in itself. BOOZER: Tillish distinguishes between a sign
and a symbol. A charateristic of the symbol is its inate power.
A symbol possesses a necessary character. It cannot be
exchanged. On the other hand a sign is impotent in itself and
can be exchanged at will [ ... ] A religious symbol is not the
creation of a subjective desire or work. If the symbol loses its
ontological grounding, it declines and becomes a mere "thing," a
sign impotent in itself. (Source: The Martin Luther King Jr.
Papers Project, Statement on Research in Progress, Nov. 9, 1990)

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