The Writings of Martin Luther King Jr.

The news has been out since the late 1980s that Martin Luther King Jr., the American Civil Rights icon, was a serial plagiarist. Not only did he plagiarize at least half of his doctoral thesis; many of his speeches, including the most famous, were plagiarized too. Nor was this a recent development in his career – he had been plagiarizing material since he was a teenager.

This is a fascinating story. There is the delicious irony that Luther King Jr. has been universally feted and embalmed with saintly oils. More interesting still, the story has been suppressed.

Most Americans have not heard about the plagiarism and perhaps never will. The editors of his papers did their utmost to prevent the story from spreading. Boston University delayed, denied and obfuscated as long as possible — and then some.

The press, including the major newsmagazines, quashed coverage until the story had emerged elsewhere, and then buried it in the inside pages, entombing it in layers of qualification, special pleading and distraction. Now that the plagiarism has become incontestable, many academics continue to cover for the plagiarist, insisting that he was merely being an African American!

Pappas struggled for years to find a publisher and effective distribution for his own groundbreaking account of all this. Despite that, the first printing sold out. Now he has completely revised and expanded the first edition, but don’t expect a bookstore in your area to carry it. Instead, point your web browser at or the Internet retailer of your choice, and have it delivered.

Pappas has no trouble establishing the principal case against Luther King Jr., since a few lengthy excerpts from his doctoral thesis and an uncannily similar work at the same college, by the deliciously-named Jack Boozer, more than suffices. Luther King Jr. copied vast tracts of text from Boozer, even repeating citation errors in the original. It is especially poignant that this was work conducted in divinity.

The author fails to do justice to the astounding coincidence that these theses shared an examiner. This may explain part of the obvious embarrassment felt by Boston University, who are forced to choose between explanations ranging from incompetence to conspiracy to commit fraud. This may provide satisfaction to those who have long suspected that nobody really reads doctoral theses anyway, least of all the examiners, and certainly not in the theology faculties.

The plagiarism did not begin or end with the doctoral thesis, so much so that the Collected Papers of Luther King Jr. apparently devotes at least as much time to “uncited sources” as it does to his own work, if that is the correct description. Even the much celebrated “I have a dream” speech of 1963 was plagiarized. By a peculiar turn of events, the source King raided for this was a speech given to the Republican National convention of 1952, by a black preacher named Archibald Carey.

The trail leads all the way back through Luther King Jr.’s undergraduate days to his teenage years – the earliest known instance is apparently an essay written at age 15. It seems to be harder to find something that that was incontestably original and not plagiarized. Hence much of Pappas’ book is devoted to the events surrounding the discovery of the plagiarism, and the widespread cover-up that has followed. Not that this was a conspiracy – these are really quite rare and very hard to execute.

The people and institutions controlling the commanding heights of opinion formation in the United States obviously share an acute embarrassment about this whole affair. Martin Luther King Jr. has been converted into an icon and assiduously promoted to the American public and the world at large as a heroic figure. An annual national holiday has been declared to honor him. Streets and institutions across the country have been named after him. He has assumed the proportions of a black George Washington, and his surviving family resembles the Kennedy clan, at least as much in behavior as in status. It is hard to find anybody in mainstream American society who has an unkind word for Martin Luther King Jr., liberal or conservative. It is often said of figures like these that they would have to be invented if they did not exist, and although Pappas does not remark on or pursue this, “Martin Luther King Jr.” was partly invented. Mostly a creation of white liberals, he has subsequently been annexed by conservatives too.

The flip side of King’s plagiarism was his unsuitableness for the roles and positions he had been promoted to. He had been selected for the doctoral program at Boston despite his inferior grades, not because of his academic potential but because he was well liked by his fellow students and the staff. Lacking the requisite ability, he got by on plagiarism. He had been cast as the Great (Liberal) Black Hope of politics, a Gerry Cooney of ideas. It is hard to believe that throughout his high school and college career nobody noticed that he was proceeding largely by imitation and appropriation of the work of others.

Part of the reason why King got away with dishonesty while alive, and still does posthumously, is the indulgence that he enjoyed as a favourite of his instructors and examiners. At the very least, this indulgence shielded him from the critical and detached consideration that the average student was subjected to – or ought to have been. King was a favourite because he represented an opportunity for the institutions he proceeded through to influence not just black society, but white society too, through a cooperative vehicle. The vehicle might not have been the brightest or most able student, but he was affable and eager to please. As it turned out, he exceeded the expectations of his promoters. Indeed, the politics represented by King had a more profound effect on white society than black society. Among blacks King was rapidly out-radicalized by Malcolm X, the Panthers and other extremists. Whatever white hostility King at first faced faded remarkably over the years, to the extent that he now represents the black face of white liberals. Not just for liberals, since conservatives have now embraced King as the embodiment of non-racialism in their anti-preference rhetoric, a symptom of the total conquest by liberals of the race issue.

Given this across the board sponsorship of King and his legacy, it is not surprising that the media in the US were not only slow to pick up on the first hints of plagiarism but deliberately scotched nascent investigations by reporters. Hints at the plagiarism had emerged in the late 1980s as King’s papers were being edited for publication under a government grant, and surfaced in 1989 in a British newspaper. It would be nearly a year before the story made print in the US, not only because reporters were reluctant to cover the story and editors reluctant to publish it, but also because the editors of the King papers deliberately stonewalled inquiries, as they later admitted quite cheerfully. Boston University turned away inquiries with categorical denials of any improprieties, a mixture of outright mendacity and bluster. Boston University has also refused to withdraw the doctorate, despite the overwhelming weight of evidence that it was stolen from the work of others.

Pappas was instrumental in breaking the story in the US, as the editor of the periodical Chronicles, which published the first details in late 1990, closely followed by The Wall Street Journal (though one should note that the first reports emerged in early 1990 from a handful of conservative organizations). This remarkable scoop for Pappas was due to courage only, since most other papers (including at least Dan Balz at the Washington Post, the editor of the New York Times book review section, and the Atlanta Journal/Constitution) and newsmagazines had already known of the story for months. Later, The New Republic would publish a mea culpa, bemoaning their own decision to kill the story, but others were not as forthcoming. Now that the story could no longer be contained, various newspapers eventually reported it in a low-key manner, smothered with qualifications and a Maginot Line of ‘explanatory’ editorials.

Gradually the story has made its way through the US media, never prominently featured and safely buried. If one looks for it, it can be found, but very few know the full story or the sheer extent of King’s plagiarism. The only place where the ‘full story’ can be obtained is Pappas’ book, and that makes it essential reading – even if Pappas sugars his bitter pill with the suggestion that Luther King should have his doctorate replaced by an honorary one. The last suggestion is an elegant demonstration of the invention, and reinvention, of Martin Luther King Jr.

Courtesy Bob from Michigan