The problem of MLK’s plagiarism

Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King, Jr.

President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King, Jr., after signing the Voter Rights Act of 1964

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 appropriation.”

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?

No.

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 otherwise.

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2 thoughts on “The problem of MLK’s plagiarism

  1. wow!
    I was never an admirer of MLK, but then again we have to be “fair” and politically correct by evening the balance of black vs. white.
    tsk tsk

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