Fifteen years ago, with Stanford's Clayborne Carson, I was responsible for directing research on Martin Luther King's early life for the Martin Luther King Papers Project. The arrangement was a sort of three legged stool, because most of the original documents on which we were to work were located in Special Collections at Boston University's Mugar Library, the senior editor was at Stanford, and my offices were at the King Center and at Emory University in Atlanta. When I joined the Project in 1986, indeed within his own lifetime (1929-1968), it was already known that there were issues about originality in Dr. King's sermons and speeches.
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. Tim Burke's colleague at Swarthmore, Allison Dorsey, was one of many graduate students at Stanford and Emory who did the fine tooth combing of the secondary sources that King wove into his own compositions. What became clear was that they 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.
When word of our findings leaked to the press, it appeared first in England and only later in the American press. It was, for several days, very big news indeed. Our five minutes of infamy waned and scholarly reflection took over. Boston University convened a panel to assess the situation. It concluded that there were serious problems with King's dissertation, made note of that, and concluded, nonetheless, that his doctorate should not be revoked. There were dissenting voices about that. Garry Wills, for one, argued that there was no statute of limitations on plagiarism. Neither death, nor Nobelity, nor immortality conferred immunity from the consequences of academic theft, he said. Boston should have revoked the doctorate.
Still, after all these years, in spite of many very important books and articles about Martin Luther King, there is much yet to be said about his plagiaries. For one thing, King's academic plagiarism deepened as he moved from being a very young college student at Morehouse, to a seminary student at Crozier, and finally a graduate student at Boston. He entered Morehouse at 15, a consequence of aggressive parental promotion and an early admissions program at the college to fill seats vacated by World War II's draft. His record at Morehouse was, altogether, rather mediocre and his teachers noted some carelessness in his papers. When he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, it was King's first experience as a racial minority student in a largely white student body and his grades dramatically improved.
Two things, it seems to me, were going on. First, King was a charming young guy, intent on returning to his professors the kind of work they expected of him. They, in turn, recommended to him sources which they, themselves, most deeply respected. So, the roots of King's plagiary lie in one of our two expectations of students. We expect them to learn what the authorities have to say about a subject. He worked the authorities' words into a seamless construct of his own creation and told his professors almost exactly what they, themselves, believed about a subject. To be candid, aren't we most likely to reward students with good grades when they say what we believe, in our heart of hearts, about a subject? What was lacking in King's academic work was the other thing which we commonly ask of students: originality of thought. To be candid, originality of thought is rare in any student, rare enough, even, in scholarship. We say we value it, but I suspect that originality of thought, if or when it raises an abrupt head, is fairly threatening to us.
The other thing that I think was going on, particularly in King's later academic career, was that he was being patronized by his liberal, white professors. That clearly was not the case when his undergraduate teachers at Morehouse evaluated his work. But when he went to predominately white institutions in the North, King received extra-ordinarily high grades for academic work which was not only often heavily plagiarized, but was otherwise quite unexceptional. There's probably no way to prove that King was being patronized, but I think that, in the context of the time, the temptation to over-reward a charming young African American student who told his liberal white professors in the North almost exactly what he knew they already deeply believed about a subject was simply overwhelming.
The tensions between valuing knowing what the authorities have said about a subject and producing a work of original thought came to a head in King's dissertation."A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman" is a sort of workman-like product, plagued with plagiarism, but passable if you're not paying attention. It is, however, no original contribution to scholarship. Isn't that what we say that we expect a dissertation to be? The reason that Martin Luther King's dissertation is of only historical interest is because it is all so predictable. He sets out, as an advocate of personalism, the theological persuasion of his mentors, to assess Paul Tillich's and Henry Nelson Wieman's doctrines of God. Boston personalism held that ultimate reality was personal. Tillich and Wieman were the most prominent spokesmen of their time for doctrines of God holding that ultimate reality was not personal. King's conclusion, that the doctrines of God in Tillich and Wieman, were flawed because they held that ultimate reality was impersonal was something altogether predictable by the terms of their premises. There was simply nothing new, interesting, or surprising there, at all.
I might conclude that none of this was fatal for King's career as a preacher and powerful public speaker. Had he pursued an academic career, his heavy reliance on the authorities, often without citing them, could have been fatal. But in preaching, perhaps even in most public speech, genuine originality is more often fatal. A congregation, even a public audience, expects to hear and responds to the word once delivered to the fathers [and mothers]. It is the familiar that resonates with us. The original sounds alien and tends to alienate. The familiar, especially the familiar that appeals to the best in us, is what we long to hear. So,"I Have A Dream" was no new vision; it was a recension, quite literally, of his own"An American Dream." And that dream, as we know, already had a long history. King's vision was, perhaps, more inclusive than earlier dreams, but it appealed to us because we already believed it.