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How Martin Luther King, Jr. Got Away With Plagiarism: Different Strokes for Different Folks.

Gary North

This is perhaps the most outrageously hypocritical incident in the history of American higher education: how Boston University allowed Martin Luther King, Jr., to retain his doctorate posthumously. This was reverse racism: "We white folks know that Darkies have different standards."

(As a Christian Reconstructionist, I believe that God's law and moral standards aplly to everyone, across the board. As the son of one of the four Los Angeles-based FBI agents -- Ahern, Benjamin, Moorehead, and North -- who identified James Earl Ray as King's assassin, I was taught that everyone deserves the protection of the law. My father had no use for King's politics, but he was proud of his work on that world-famous case.)

Martin Luther King was born Michael King.

He never did have his name legally changed. He took his father's name.

He received his Ph.D. from Boston University, where he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. He also plagiarized sections of Stride Toward Freedom. This was his practice throughout his academic career. He regarded other men's words just as he regarded other men's wives: as ripe for the taking.

His plagiarism has been known for a decade. It is discussed in detail by Theodore Pappas, who wrote a book about it: The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story (Rockford, Illinois: Rockford Institute, 1994).

Pappas has published examples of this in the book he edited, Plagiarism and the Culture War: The Writings of Martin Luther King and Other Prominent Americans. (Halberg, 1998).

The earliest warning that King was a plagiarist came from Ira Zepp, in an unpublished story, which revealed that sections of King's book, Stride Towqard Freedom, had been lifted from books written by two theologians.

His plagiarism includes his Nobel Prize lecture, his "I have a Dream" speech, and his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." One biographer called this activity "ghostwriting." (Note: authors pay ghostwriters for their work. King did not pay anyone for the purloined sections.) A chronology of the story of his plagiarism appears here:

[2005 Note: This document is no longer on-line. Substitiute this one:]

The first public revelation of King's plagiarized Ph.D. dissertation came in the London Telegraph (Dec. 3, 1989). The story was suppressed in the U.S. until January, 1991, when Pappas blew the lid off. (Theodore Pappas, "A Doctor in Spite of Himself: The Strange Career of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dissertation," Chronicles [Jan. 1991].) The appearance of this article forced the American press to admit what King had done, how the editor of King's papers had suppressed the fact for years, lying to those who inquired about this.

The large number of plagiarized sources in everything King wrote and preached, from the beginning of his career, is visible in volume 1 of his Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); the plagiarized originals appear in the footnotes. The publication of this volume was delayed for many years because of this public relations problem.

The response of the academic community and the media indicates that liberals' icons are not allowed to be publicly embarrassed, in life or posthumously. The CHRONICLES article led to a series of defenses of King's plagiarism, including an immediate one written by a Roman Catholic professor of metaphysics: George F. McLean, "King's Scholarship Was Central to His Vision," Wall Street Journal (Jan. 21, 1991).

In 1992, an untenured English professor at Arizona State University, Keith Miller, had his book published: a defense of King's plagiarism, which he calls "intertextualizations," "incorporations," "borrowings," "echoing," "resonances," and "voice merging." On the defense, see Keith Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King Jr., and Its Sources (New York: Free Press, 1992). This book was reviewed by Pappas, "A Houdini of Time," Chronicle (Nov. 1992).

A faculty committee at Boston University, which awarded King the Ph.D., concluded in 1991 that the first half of his dissertation was 45 percent stolen, the second half was 21 percent stolen, but the thesis nonetheless remains legitimate and "an intelligent contribution to scholarship." The school did not revoke his degree. (Pappas, Martin Luther King, p. 103.)

Reed Irvine, who runs Accuracy in Media, a conservative media-monitoring organization, has summarized the scandal.

Theodore Pappas has written a piece for Chronicles magazine that should be required reading for every journalism student and journalist. It tells the story of how the media, including book publishers, tried to suppress the story of how famed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King committed plagiarism -- stealing material from other people and claiming it as his own. For his role in bringing this to the public's attention, Pappas says he received three death threats, one left hook to the jaw and 40 rejections from 40 publishers in 40 months. This is quite a record. When he finally found a publisher, the book's first edition was sold out. It carried the title, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Plagiarism Story.

Pappas recounts his effort in publicizing the story in the May issue of Chronicles magazine, where he serves as managing editor. Pappas was the first journalist who exposed, with parallel quotations, how segments of King's Ph.D dissertation had been copied from a previous work. He estimates that 66 percent of King's dissertation was plagiarized. On top of revelations about King's womanizing, the plagiarism allegations served to demonstrate that while King postured as a paragon of moral virtue, he was in reality a scoundrel. This is not something that a lot of people wanted to hear.

The Wall Street Journal, considered by some a conservative newspaper, heard the story was breaking and ran its own piece -- a whitewash of the charges against King. Even the Journal's editorial page tried to suppress the significance of the story by insisting that it had to be covered in a "carefully modulated" manner.

Writing in the New Republic magazine, Charles Babington would later reveal that the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Republic itself all had known the facts about King's plagiarism but refused to publish them. The Times eventually did cover the issue but in a subsequent editorial suggested that the plagiarism was somehow comparable to a politician using a ghost writer for speeches.

Pappas's expanded version of the King Plagiarism Story has now been published by Hallberg Publishing Corporation under the title "Plagiarism and the Culture War." Regarding the publishers who rejected his original book and the new edition, Pappas says three of them said any criticism of King would be in "bad taste" because "King isn't around to defend himself." Pappas notes that such an approach would mean the end of historical studies and scholarship in general. He points out that such an attitude hasn't stopped various so-called "scholars" and academics from defaming one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Apparently it's all right to bad-mouth Jefferson; after all, he was a white European male. But King, a black civil rights leader, has to be spared any criticism. This is the double-standard that infects the media today. . . .

Prof. Trout of the University of Montana -- a fitting name for anyone who lives in Montana -- has written an excellent piece on how a rising tide of plagiarism is now undermining higher education. (Stealing from the Web is easy, but students can also buy essays on-line.) He writes:

One notorious plagiarism case -- involving, sadly, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- illustrates that some professors not only ignore plagiarism but excuse it.

In 1991 a panel of scholars at Boston University ruled that Dr. King plagiarized parts of his 1952 doctoral dissertation at BU by "appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation." A careful analysis of King's dissertation by Theodore Pappas revealed that over sixty percent was copied from an earlier dissertation. Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, and professor of history at Stanford University, found additionally that King's student essays and published and unpublished addresses and essays all contain "numerous instances of plagiarism and, more generally, textual appropriation."

When the charges became public, some professors -- both black and white -- rushed to palliate or deny King's wrongdoing. The most bald-faced effort came from the Acting President of Boston University (October 1990): "Dr. King's dissertation has, in fact, been scrupulously examined and reexamined by scholars...Not a single instance of plagiarism of any sort has been identified" (in Pappas Plagiarism 68). Taking a similar tack, the committee of BU academics found "no blatancy" in the plagiarism despite the fact that King appropriated page after page from other works.

Others tried to palliate the offense by saying it was the result of "carelessness" (despite the fact that King had taken a graduate course in thesis writing). A few, like Keith D. Miller, an English professor at Arizona State University, notoriously argued that King merely had drawn on the oral traditions of the black church in which "voice merging" -- the blending of the words and ideas of those who spoke before -- is commonplace. A somewhat conflicted Professor Carson went further, describing King's "pattern of unacknowledged appropriation of words and ideas," which he does label "plagiarism," as a "legitimate utilization of political, philosophical, and literary texts" that allowed King "to express his ideas effectively using the words of others" via a "successful composition method." And Professor George McLean praised King's plagiarized dissertation as "a contribution in scholarship for which his doctorate was richly deserved" (in Pappas "Life and Times" 43). As Theodore Pappas points out, to say that [King's] doctorate was "richly deserved" when 66 percent of his dissertation was plagiarized is "absurd and dishonest" (Ibid.).

But "absurdity" and "dishonesty" now often trump adherence to the academic creed. When confronted with irrefutable proof of plagiarism, what did many notable scholars do? In the words of Jacob Neusner, Distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida:

They lied, they told half-truths, they made up fables, they did everything they could but address facts; three enlightened individuals even threatened [Pappas's] life. 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 reworded matters to make them sound less dreadful, they compromised their own university's integrity and the rules supposedly enforced to defend and protect the process of learning and the consequent degrees. They called into question the very standing of the university as a place where cheating is penalized and misrepresentation condemned (in Pappas, I 1).

Jacob Neusner is probably the most prolific scholar in American history. Five or six years ago, I asked him to send me a copy of his published works. He did. The list was then over 30 single-spaced pages long. He is a publishing phenomenon like no other I am aware of. He has every right to complain about what King did.


There is a common belief today that men's private sins should not be considered in our assessment of their public lives. This public philosophy can be summarized as follows: "Cigars shared between consenting adults don't count." It is always applied by liberals to liberals. Sometimes it applies to conservatives, unless the sins involve money, especially Political Action Committee money taken from business. But money taken by the Democratic National Committee from agents of Communist China is like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s plagiarism: irrelevant.

There is a now-discarded phrase: "If a man will cheat on his wife, he will cheat on anyone." That is my view. That is the way I vote, when I vote.

King was right about Rosa Parks. He was right about non-violence. But what he did to other men's wives, and to his own wife, was unconscionable. Also unconscionable was his career-long theft of the words that he stole for public use. But the liberals who dismiss all of this are worse, for they seek to make intellectual theft and adultery seem irrelevant. They prefer to undermine the ethics of civilization for the sake of politics and race.


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