Published: November 10, 1990
Torn between loyalty to his subject and to his discipline, the editor of the papers of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reluctantly acknowledged yesterday that substantial parts of Dr. King’s doctoral dissertation and other academic papers from his student years appeared to have been plagiarized.
The historian, Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University who was chosen in 1985 by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to head the King Papers Project, said that analysis of the papers by researchers working on the project had uncovered concepts, sentences and longer passages taken from other sources without attribution throughout Dr. King’s writings as a theology student.
“We found that there was a pattern of appropriation, of textual appropriation,” said the 46-year-old historian, who was active in the civil rights movement and has written extensively on black history. He spoke at a news conference at Stanford, called after an article in The Wall Street Journal yesterday disclosed details of the project’s findings. “By the strictest definition of plagiarism — that is, any appropriation of words or ideas — there are instances of plagiarism in these papers.” A Lack of Answers
Although he said that he believed Dr. King had acted unintentionally, Mr. Carson said that Dr. King had been sufficiently well acquainted with academic principles and procedures to have understood the need for extensive footnotes, and he was at a loss to explain why Dr. King had not used them.
Mr. Carson and other scholars who have seen the papers declined to say how great a percentage of the material had been plagiarized, but they said it was enough to indicate a serious violation of academic principles.
Officials at Boston University, which awarded Dr. King his doctorate in 1955, announced yesterday that a committee of four scholars had been formed to investigate the dissertation. But it is not likely, even if plagiarism is proved, that the Ph.D. degree in theology would be revoked, because neither Dr. King nor his dissertation adviser is alive to defend the work.
The controversy comes after a series of allegations over the past year and a half about Mr. King’s extramarital sexual habits and conflicts within his family. While not detracting from his accomplishments as a leader in the civil rights movement and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the controversies may tarnish the myth of the man. Dr. King as Role Model
“It really in some ways is not at all connected to his public greatness,” said David J. Garrow, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, whose biography of Dr. King, “Bearing the Cross,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Mr. Garrow is a member of the King Papers Project’s advisory board and has reviewed the papers in question. “But this serious an offense really does alter how we have to evaluate him, especially in the context of telling 10-year-olds who they should look up to.”
But to many supporters of Dr. King, the allegations are another attempt to detract from his accomplishments.
“Dr. King as a young fellow may have overlooked some footnotes,” said the Rev.
Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by Dr. King. “But history is caught up in his footprints, and will be hardly disturbed by the absence of some footnotes.” Donation of Papers
Scholars at the King Papers Project said the fact that Dr. King donated his papers to Boston University six years before he was assassinated in 1968 indicated that he knew future scholars would look at his work and he not think he had done anything wrong.
In the 343-page dissertation, titled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” Dr. King appears to have used many of the same words and titles as another doctoral dissertation written three years earlier by Jack Boozer, under the guidance of the same adviser, L. Harold DeWolf. The earlier work was cited in Dr. King’s bibliography, but footnoted only twice, The Journal reported.
According to Mr. Carson, in certain sections of the paper dealing with complex theological conceptions, Dr. King lifted entire sentences and some longer passages from the works of Tillich, Mr. Boozer and other authors.
In one passage, for example, Dr. King wrote, “The basic characteristic of the symbol is its innate power.” Mr. Boozer, discussing the same concept, wrote, “A characteristic of the symbol is its innate power.”
In his academic papers Dr. King occasionally used another author’s argument as his own, the researchers found, and even where he did use citations and footnotes, his reliance on previous material was often more extensive than he explicitly acknowledged.
But Mr. Carson said it was important to understand the scholarly context of the work. He said it was not uncommon, especially in dealing with abstract theological concepts, for interpreters to rely on and even paraphrase the same material; in this case, the conception of God as set forth by Tillich.