Plagiarism in Martin Luther King’s Dissertation

Dr. King Plagarism

The Case of Plagiarism in Martin Luther King’s Dissertation

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In 1989, Pprofessor Clayborne Carlson of Stanford University was hired by the late widow of Dr. Martin Luther King. Coretta King hired Carlson and his staff to compile Dr. King’s papers. During the course of the project it was discovered that in the papers written from 1948 to 1955 the civil rights leader copied the exact words and several concepts from other people without giving them proper credit (Ostling and Ludtke, p. 99). The question is whether Dr. King did this purposely, or whether it was the overwhelming schedule of a busy college student. This research will support the thesis that the Dr. King’s plagiarism was Intentional. It will also provide a balanced perspective on the many opinions, questions and issues that have arisen in light of the discover of this information.

What was the extent of the accusations?

According to a panel at Boston University of the extent of the plagiarism extended be yond more than one piece. In some places the work of others was not explicitly credited in notes and in others the credits were too general or too far from the text to be recognizable as the source (“Boston U. Panel Finds Plagiarism by Dr. King,” p. 15). According to the panel these instances of plagiarism that were found in his dissertation for a doctoral degree at the university. The dissertation in most in question is “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” written by Dr. King in 1955 (“Boston U. Panel Finds Plagiarism by Dr. King,” p. 15).

Circumstances Surrounding the Plagarism

The plagiarism occurred during Dr. King’s early days at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. Some of them also occurred while he was a doctoral candidate of that Boston University (Ostling and Ludtke, p. 99). The occurrence of continued plagiarism would support the supposition that the plagiarism was intentional, but the question still remains as to whether Dr. King committed the acts intentionally, or whether they were a mistake. In order to explore this question, one must examine the circumstances under which the plagiarism occurred.,

Several circumstances could have led to Kings plagiarism, whether or not it is a case of intentional plagiarism. It could be that a busy college student was sloppy in their citations. There were few other times when Dr. King failed to cite the original source at least once. Therefore, the failure to use citations in the articles in question is not the usual of habit of Dr. King.

It is also known that pastors often learn of their trade by echoing each other. The text in question is material from a dissertation written three years earlier by another student. It may be that Dr. King inadvertently became sloppy and carried this practice into the classroom. Whether Dr. King plagiarized intentionally or unintentionally many scholars refused to dismiss any act of plagiarism as acceptable. The university of warns explicitly against any type of plagiarism. The standard is when in doubt that a student should cite the source. Therefore, the allegations against Dr. King have altered many historians view of King’s moral character (Raymond, A5, A9). This raises many controversial topic among the public and among scholars.

The Chronicle of Higher Education affirms plagarism by Dr., King, but also questions his academic supervision. This brings into view a key issue in the motives behind Dr. King’s work / One must ask the logical question of why it took nearly 40 years for the plagiarism to be discovered. The answer to this question might lie in differences in communication that existed now that did not exist then. In our modern world of Copyscape and other plagiarism checkers it is easy to forget that not so long ago these technologies were not available. The only information that a person had was what they had direct access to through the library or other colleagues.

If Martin Luther King’s various professors of did not speak with one another or pass around dissertations, they may have had no reason to check his work against the work of others. The only reason why a professor would question a student’s work is if it was inconsistent with what they had produced in the past, or if they had read the other person’s dissertation first. If this was not the case, then the professor may not catch the plagiarism. This is often a point that is forgotten in today’s modern world of automatic plagiarism checkers. It is difficult to imagine this scenario occurring in modern times, but in the days when Dr. King was writing, it was much easier to plagiarize, whether it was intentional or unintentional. The article in the Chronicle of Higher Learning suggests that the criticisms are based on modern conventions about plagiarism and the ease of discovering such actions. This may be an error in judging actions before the technology existed to make them easy to discover.

Martin Luther King did not begin his career with the confidence and spirit that he demonstrated at the end of the Civil Rights Movement. The papers that are in question were written largely in the early part of his career when Dr. King did not demonstrate the confidence that he had in later years. After of the Montgomery Bus Boycott Dr. King grew in confidence but his writings before that time did not reflect the same level of confidence that he demonstrated in later years. This lack of confidence may have been a key reason for the plagiarism, if in fact it was intentional (“The transformation of Martin Luther King, Jr.”). In his early days, Dr. King did not have the same sense of mission and purpose that he had in his later years. His sense of mission and purpose developed as the events in his life transpired. This is one of the points that Garrow makes.

Should His Degree be Stripped?

The four man panel at Boston University was asked a complex question in regards to the disposition of Dr. King’s, which has placed them under scrutiny since that time. The question was whether Dr. King’s doctoral degree should be revoked posthumously due to plagarism. The panel decided that doing so would serve no purpose. However, they did decide to place a letter stating their official findings with a copy of Dr. King’s dissertation in the university library (“Boston U. Panel Finds Plagiarism by Dr. King,” p. 15).

S. Paul Schilling, second reader of the dissertation, felt that the issue of plagiarism was blown out of proportion. It was hip opinion that Dr. King’s total work and contribution to society should be taken into consideration (Thelen, p. 18). Schiling was opposed to punishing Dr. King for plagiarizing. However, many disagree. The Mooney (1992) feels that the handling of Dr. King’s plagiarism case sends the message that the university was lax on its policy about plagiarism. Mooney claims that a substantial amount of work was plagiarized and that the failure to act serves as a message that plagiarism is not a major issue at the university. Others have also asked what message this sends about scholarship and about its effect on the Civil Rrights Movement, as well as the image of that is held in the public eye about Dr. King (Raymond, p. 2).

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carlson presents his work and collection of the original works of Dr. King. Although the work centers on the controversies around King and the plagiarism issue, he also highlights King’s contribution to society (Carlson, p. 1). Carlson presents a balanced perspective of the controversy without making judgment. Carlson was one of few authors who was able to take a balanced approach to the King plagiarism controversy.

David Garrow explores the issue of what effect King’s plagiarism had on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Garrow does not minimize the amount of plagiarism that is present in King’s work. He draws the conclusion that King was aware of the moral implications of what he was doing at the time he did it (Garrow, p. 86). It is difficult to argue that it was not properly cited in other parts of the same work and that it used footnotes throughout the other parts of his work. This make it difficult to argue that it was a simple mistake on his part.

Garrow stresses many of the pivotal works on the King plagiarism conflict. Relying on Carlson’s work and original documents, he draws the conclusion that Coretta King had to know about the plagiarism, as she was the one who typed his final dissertation. Garrow also points out that King had a talent for memorizing text quickly and easily (p. 88). This learning style may have played a key role in the plagiarism issue according Carlson’s work. In addition, Garrow reiterates the position that direct imitation is considered to be acceptable for a preacher who is just starting out in his career.

The question surrounding Dr. King’s plagiarism is how it affects other researchers “Martin Luther King’s Plagarism: Moral Issues for Researchers.” Carlson has been criticized for his role in the controversy as well. When Kings plagiarism was discovered, Carlson did not act quickly enough according to some critics. However, it might be that Carlson understood the gravity of the discovery and wanted to make sure before he released it to the public. Carlson knew that his discoveries would harm the image of a national icon. Therefore, one cannot agree with curtains critics on this point. It appear that he was just being cautious about his own work. Carlson stated that the reason for his slow disclosure was that he was afraid that the information would reach the press and that they would sensationalize it, and he was correct about this assumption, in the end. The discovery of the King plagiarism was a source of media sensationalism.

Raymond reports that Carlson wanted to publish the entirety of the papers before releasing them to the public because he wanted something to be discussed besides the plagiarism. Raymond notes that despite his intentions, Carlson’s delay is still criticized because it took three years. Carlson points out that many historical figures go through periods of criticism, but that does not detract from what they accomplished during their lifetime. The same could certainly be said for King, because Civil Rights Movement would still be the Civil Rights Movement, even if King had not plagiarized.

Turque and Joseph also question whether the plagiarism issue diminishes the legacy that King left on the Civil Rights Movement and on society. The conclusion that can drawn by these authors is that King was a lousy scholar, but that he was still a great man. Turque and Joseph bring up an interesting point that is relevant to the time of King’s work, but that is not relevant today. Nearly a half a century has gone by since the days of the Civil Rights Movement. It is easy to forget what times were like then. Turque and Joseph suggest that perhaps King’s professors held him to a lower standard than the rest of the students because he was black. This is certainly a possibility, but it is pure speculation on the part of Turque and Joseph. No one knows what King’s professors were thinking.

All of the researchers examined in the course of this study were concerned about damaging King’s reputation and the effect that it would have on the perception of his work and on the Civil Rights Movement. Turque and Joseph made the point that King’s grades were good and that it was likely that he would have received the degree, even if he had not plagiarized. This observation does not fit the ideal of a student who would be motivated to plagiarize. If one felt that it was necessary because they know that they were not capable of doing the work, it is one thing. In the case of King, it would not seem that this was the case, making the motivations and mystery surrounding the plagiarism issue even more perplexing.

The fact that plagiarism occurred is not the question and the extent to which has occurred is an even more confounding to King Scholars (DePalma, p. 1; Johnson, p.21). Had the plagiarism only occurred in one or two instances, then it would have been easy to call it a mistake or to say it was unintentional. However, the extent to which it occurred does not lead one to believe that King’s plagiarism was unintentional. His motivations will forever remain a mystery, and the only one who truly knows why he committed these acts is Dr. King himself. At the present time we can only speculate as to the motives of a person who lived long ago. There are many reasons why Dr. King may have plagiarized his work, including those that were acceptable by seminary students at the time. However, intentional plagiarism has always been a critical issue among college students and was taken just as seriously as it is today. Plagiarism was much more difficult to catch in those days, but if it was caught the punishment was severe.

Watson (p, A44) makes a point that King became an American icon and as such that the public tends to see him as perfection. Society has high expectation of those who do great things in our country. However, as Watson points out, they are still human and just because they are the symbol of freedom and hope, does not mean that they were perfect by any means. To judge Dr. King as anything more than human would be to forget that, we ourselves, are human too.

Was Dr., King and Ideal or a Man?

An examination of the evidence makes a clear that the plagiarism in King’s work was extensive (“The Student Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research). Whether it was intentional or not, the question remains as to whether his actions should lead to his doctoral degree being revoked. The panel at Boston University had a difficult decision. They had to weigh whether one act negated the entireity of his life and his professional career.

In the end, one has to consider both the implications the actions of one’s days of youth and how it affects the work that was accomplished later in life by Dr. King. Whether one agrees that Dr. King’s decree should be stripped from him, or whether one agrees that what is in the past could not be changed by such an action, it does make society take a realistic look at whether Dr. King was man or an ideal.

An editorial in the New York Times, “What Dr. King Wrote, and What He Did,” addresses the effect of the plagiarism on King’s public image. Dr. King’s record represents an ideal, as much as a man. Trust is a key part of academic scholarship and the plagiarism issue casts a cloud on Dr. King’s good image. For Dr. King’s admires, this cloud mires his work and discredits the ideals that the stood for. However, regardless of these issues, much of the world still agrees that Dr. King’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement far outweighs the sins of his younger days.

One has to ask the question if Dr. King had known that he would be a world famous leader in his early years, if he would have taken the same actions or not. Would a young man, who did not yet have the wisdom that he would have in later years, still make the same mistakes? This is like asking Dr. King to predict is own future. It is easy to judge someone else’s actions from the standpoint of having all of the information available because as a part of our history. We know now, what Dr. King did not know about his later life. We do not have all of the information about our future, and neither did Dr. King. This still does not forgive an act of plagiarism, but it does highlight of the importance of society’s ideals about Dr. King and his status as an icon. Dr. King was a human and had to live out his life just as the rest of us do. We do not know what our future holds and can only make decisions about what is happening in our lives at the present time.

If nothing else, the issue of plagiarism brings to light the ideal that Dr. King was a person just like any of the rest of us and that he was flawed, just like anyone else. More than anything else, it should inspire others to achieve their dreams and to pursue their own destiny because none of us know of what the future holds. Dr. King is one of many American and world icons to fall from grace. When an American icon is found to be less than ideal, society tends to judge them harshly, the but it should not detract from the works that they did because all of us have made mistakes. It is not known whether Dr. King would have still committed plagiarism, because he did it out of a tradition in seminary, or whether he would have changed his actions because of the implications. None of us will ever know the real answer to this question and anything else would be speculation.

Would Dr. King’s speeches have been so dramatic and have had the ability of to change the ideals of others had they not contained selections from other people’s works? This is also a question that cannot be answered. At the end of the day we are only left with a stack of papers and the words of a man who changed history. Dr. King still stands as one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and his works, whether they are original or not had the same effect. This is not to excuse plagiarism or to minimize the seriousness of the offense by De, King (“What to Make of King Plagarism Charge”), but it places a different light on the plagiarism issue. Rather than looking for one another’s flaws, perhaps we should learn to look at the positive light that is in each of us.

One must be reminded that Dr. King was not the first great leader to be accused of plagiarism. Sections of Shakespeare were taken from the works of other playwrights (“What to Make of King Plagiarism Charge”). It is also important to view the circumstances form historical context, rather than from the viewpoints of our own society. One side of the issue that was not addressed by other scholars is that of Dr. King’s widow says that Jack Boozer was aware that Dr. King of intended to use his work and that it was done with his blessing. This viewpoint brings out one of the most apparent characteristics of the Dr. King plagiarism issue. It is that there are many lenses from which to view the situation and circumstances that surrounded his acts.

In this research a number of a different opinions have been expressed from various sources. People have strong opinions about the issue, but the main point that this research discovered was that people have the tendency to take a certain viewpoint based on their own life experiences and attitudes. It is difficult to change these attitudes, but in the end no one really knows what is right and what is wrong because all of the players in this drama have passed from this earth.

This research addresses the issue of whether Dr. King’s plagiarism was intentional orunintentional. The research supports the thesis that Dr. King’s plagiarism was intentional, but it also examines his motives. On this issue, no clear conclusions can be drawn the real question is whether it would have changed history or not. The only thing that we have left is a pile of papers and a society that was changed forever by the words of a young seminary student.

Works Cited

“Boston U. Panel Finds Plagiarism by Dr. King.” New York Times, October 11, 1991. p15.

Carlson, Clayborne. Documenting Martin Luther King’s Importance — and is Flaws. Chronicle of Higher Education, January 16, 1991. Vol. 37 Issue 18, p. A52, 1. p, 1

DePalms, a. Plagiarism Seen by Scholars in King’s Ph.D. Dissertation. New York Times,

November 10, 1990, p1.

Garrow, David. “King’s Plagiarism: Imitation, Insecurity, and Transformation” (in Becoming

Martin Luther King, Jr.-Plagriarism and Originality: A Round Table), the Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1. (June 1991), pp. 86-92. < http://www.davidgarrow->. Accessed

February 24, 2011.

Johnson, C. Rethinking King. U.S. News & World Report, January 27, 1992. Vol. 112 Issue 3,


Mooney, C.J. Critics question higher education’s commitment and effectiveness in dealing with plagiarism. Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12, 1992. Vol. 38 Issue 23, pA13,


Ostling, R.N. And Ludtke, M. A hero’s footnotes of clay. Time.November 19, 1990. Vol. 136

Issue 22, p99.


Accessed February 24, 2011.

“Plagiarism by Martin Luther King Affirmed by Scholars at Boston U.” Chronicle of Higher

Education, October 16, 1991. Vol. 38 Issue 8, pA21, 1/5p

Raymond, Chris. Allegations of Plagiarism Alter Historians’ Views of Civil-Rights Leader.

Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/10/91, Vol. 37 Issue 43, pA5, 2. p, 2

Raymond, Chris. Discovery of Early Plagiarism by Martin Luther King Raises Troubling

Questions for Scholars and Admirers. Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21,

1990. Vol. 37 Issue 12, pA1, 2p, 2

Raymond, Chris. “Martin Luther King’s Plagiarism: Moral Issues for Researchers.” Education

in Digest, January 1991, Vol. 56 Issue 5, p40-43, 4p

“The Student Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research.” Journal of American History; June 91, Vol. 78 Issue 1, p23-31, 9p

“The transformation of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Wilson Quarterly; Autumn 1991, Vol. 15 Issue

4, p16,

Thelen, David, “Conversation between S. Paul Schilling and David Thelen.” Journal of American History; June 91, Vol. 78 Issue 1, p63-80, 18p, Interview.

“The Student Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research.” Journal of American History; June 91, Vol. 78 Issue 1, p23-31, 9p

Turque, B. And Joseph, N. Not in his own words. Newsweek, 11/19/90, Vol. 116 Issue 21, p61;,

1p, 2

Watson, D. (1991). Scholars’ Focus on Martin Luther King Has Skewed Our Understanding of the Civil-Rights Struggle. Chronicle of Higher Education; January 23, 1991. Vol. 37

Issue 19, pA44-A44, 1p

“What Dr. King Wrote, and What He Did” New York Times, November 13. 1990., p30, 0p

8260 >. Accessed February 26, 2011.

“What to Make of King Plagiarism Charge.” New York Times, November 21, 1990. p22, 0p

“Widow Says Writer Didn’t Care That King Copied.” New York Times, November 11, 1990,

p28, 0p

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