The problem of MLK's plagiarism

From: Ronny Koch ([email protected])

We’re not much these days for icons. Washington owned slaves,
and Jefferson almost certainly slept with at least one of his
slaves, whom he never freed. JFK was a serial philanderer,
Tricky Dick actually was a crook, and MLK was an academic fraud
no more entitled to be called Doctor King than I am.

Oh, wait, I forgot: King is our one remaining icon.

So, like the naked emperor’s subjects, we just don’t talk about
the fact that, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Executive
Director Theodore Pappas, King lifted a mind-boggling 60% of his
doctoral dissertation from other sources without crediting them.

While preparing his writings for publication in the late ’80s,
the editors of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and
Education Institute at Stanford noticed what they called
“extensive plagiaries” in all his academic papers, including his
dissertation. Stanford professor and Director of the King
Institute Clayborne Carson found that both King’s student papers
and his later essays and addresses all contained “numerous
instances of plagiarism and, more generally, textual

In 1991, according to the New York Times, a panel of scholars at
Boston University, appointed by the provost to study the alleged
plagiarism in King’s dissertation, reported after a year’s study:

There is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in the
dissertation 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.

Civil rights historian Ralph E. Luker has written of his and
Carson’s discovery of King’s horrendous plagiarism:

What became increasingly clear as we worked through the papers
from King’s early career is that there were serious problems of
plagiarism in his academic work. … [T]hey were a patchwork of
his own language and the language of scholars, often without
clear attribution. If anything, the pattern seemed to be that
the more familiar King was with a subject, the less likely he
was to plagiarize. On matters that were fairly alien to his
experience, he borrowed heavily from others and often with only
the slightest wink of attribution. To take two extreme examples,
an autobiographical paper,”Autobiography of Religious
Development” has no significant plagiarism in it; his paper on
“The Chief Characteristics and Doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism,”
however, is composed almost exclusively of paragraphs lifted
from the best secondary sources available to him. Moreover, the
further 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. [Emphasis mine]

Incredibly, Boston University decided simply to put a note in
King’s dissertation, pointing out the pervasive plagiarism, but
found that revoking King’s doctorate would “serve no purpose.”

Say what?

We struggle with pandemic plagiarism in universities, but
revoking the doctorate of a famous guy who stole most of his
dissertation would serve no purpose? How about the purpose of
sending a warning to students and researchers that we take
cheating seriously? Or how about the simple purpose of
intellectual honesty and truth-telling?

The civil rights movement is clearly an important part of our
history. It’s probably important enough to deserve a day of
celebration. (I hesitate only because, if it is, it’s odd that
the enfranchisement of 51% of America, which didn’t occur until
1920, apparently isn’t important enough to merit its own day of
remembrance.) And MLK is certainly an appropriate symbol of the
civil rights movement.

Does that mean we need to talk only about his tremendous
accomplishments and hide his shocking lack of character?


Let’s ditch the unfounded respect accorded to Rev. King by the
title “Doctor.” He was a liar and a cheat. He didn’t earn the
Ph.D. and he doesn’t deserve the title. He is as deeply flawed
as most of our other national leaders. Let’s quit pretending

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