Martin Luther King Jr., Thief

Earlier this month, France’s top rabbi Gilles Bernheim resigned, brought down by a plagiarism scandal of his own making (see here and here and here). Geoffrey Alderman, in the Jewish Chronicle online, makes a very good point when, after roundly condemning Bernheim for his thievery, he asks

why one serial plagiarist has been exposed and disgraced, while another has been canonized.

Alderman says he knows a famous theologian who never repented and got away with repeated acts of plagiarism — and so do you.

That theologian is Martin Luther King Jr, the celebrated civil rights activist who was infamously assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, 45 years ago this month.

King … was not just a plagiarist. He was an habitual plagiarist. His Boston University PhD, awarded in 1955, contained numerous plagiarized passages — a conclusion endorsed by a board of inquiry established by that university some years later. To those of you interested in learning more about this, I recommend Plagiarism & The Culture War, a meticulous exposé of King by Theodore Pappas from 1994. Pappas reproduces, side-by-side, passages from King’s PhD and from the work of a fellow Boston University student, whose doctoral dissertation had been approved in 1952.


King went on to publish articles and books that incorporated — without attribution — passages lifted from the works of others.

I knew of King’s well-deserved reputation as a serial adulterer, but the plagiarism allegations were new to me. They shouldn’t have been, I suppose, because as it turns out, King’s thievery is a well-established fact. Wikipedia delicately refers to “authorship issues” surrounding the civil-rights hero — but stripped of euphemisms, King’s behavior was clearly pretty disgusting:

During the late 1980s, as [King’s personal] papers were being organized and catalogued, the staff of the project discovered that King’s doctoral dissertation at Boston University, titled A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, included large sections from a dissertation written by another student (Jack Boozer) three years earlier at Boston University.

As Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project at Stanford University, has written, “instances of textual appropriation can be seen in his earliest extant writings as well as his dissertation. The pattern is also noticeable in his speeches and sermons throughout his career.”

Boston University, where King received his Ph.D. in systematic theology, conducted an investigation that found he plagiarized major portions of his doctoral thesis from various other authors who wrote about the topic.

According to civil rights historian Ralph E. Luker, who worked on the King Papers Project directing the research on King’s early life, King’s paper The Chief Characteristics and Doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism was taken almost entirely from secondary sources. [Luker] writes: “Moreover, the farther 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.”

Even after the extent of King’s academic fraud came to light, Boston University never revoked his doctorate. All the school did was append a letter to his dissertation in the university library, noting the plagiarism.

This old Stranglers song sums it up for me.

[photo of Martin Luther King via Charisma News]