Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1988, the editors of the Martin Luther King, Jr., papers made the unsettling discovery that King’s doctoral dissertation as well as many of his academic papers had been substantially plagiarized. The editors were slow in reporting their discovery, but British journalist Frank Robert Johnson learned of it and broke the story in 1989.

Summary of Event

Civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, the wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., initiated a project in 1984 to gather King’s papers and publish them in a multivolume collection. She chose a prominent African American historian, Clayborne Carson, to direct the Stanford University:King Papers Project King Papers Project at Stanford University. In 1988, Carson and his assistants were shocked to discover instances of serious plagiarism in King’s 1955 doctoral dissertation in theology for Boston University. The dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” included lengthy passages that were taken nearly word-for-word from various texts, especially from Boston University doctoral student Jack Boozer’s thesis of 1952, without quotations, footnotes, or other attribution. [kw]King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed, Martin Luther (Dec. 3, 1989) [kw]Plagiarism Is Revealed, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis (Dec. 3, 1989) King, Martin Luther, Jr. Carson, Clayborne King, Martin Luther, Jr. Carson, Clayborne [g]Europe;Dec. 3, 1989: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed[02430] [g]England;Dec. 3, 1989: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed[02430] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Dec. 3, 1989: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed[02430] [c]Education;Dec. 3, 1989: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed[02430] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Dec. 3, 1989: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed[02430] [c]Plagiarism;Dec. 3, 1989: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed[02430] [c]Publishing and journalism;Dec. 3, 1989: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Doctoral-Thesis Plagiarism Is Revealed[02430] Johnson, Frank DeWolf, L. Harold King, Coretta Scott

The King papers’ editors soon discovered a pattern: King had placed extensive portions of other persons’ writings in his graduate-school papers without documentation (citing one’s sources is standard scholarly practice). Failing to check for accuracy, he replicated mistakes from those copied texts, errors that included footnotes with erroneous page numbers. Editors believed that disclosing the plagiarism would lead to public misunderstanding and do harm to the editorial project. Following discussions with the project’s board of directors, the editors decided to first do exhaustive research to determine the extent of the plagiarism, after which Carson would announce the plagiarism in a scholarly article to appear just before publication of the first volume of King’s papers.

Apparently the editors did not anticipate that putting off the announcement of their discovery would be interpreted as an attempt to conceal a scandal about a national hero. A few editors and board members, even after agreeing to not discuss the matter with outsiders, could not resist the temptation to inform friends and associates. American journalists began to hear rumors about problems with the project, but they apparently considered the matter too controversial to pursue, perhaps fearing their actions would be denounced as racist. However, when British journalist Frank Johnson heard the rumors, he telephoned Carson and assistant editor Ralph Luker to inquire about the matter. Although the two editors were noncommittal and vague, they did not entirely deny that King had probably engaged in plagiarism, at least to some extent. In a column appearing in the Sunday Telegraph (London) on December 3, 1989, Johnson reported his conversations. He wrote, in “Martin Luther King—Was He a Plagiarist?” that even if King were a plagiarist, “In my view this does not detract from his greatness, no more than did the revelations about his extramarital sex life.”

Although other historians and journalists were aware of Johnson’s scoop, they chose not to publicize the scandal further. Carson hoped to be the first to release the story more widely, and to do so in a scholarly article in the Journal of American History. Unexpectedly, his paper was rejected, reportedly because he had not taken a firm stand on the plagiarism issue. Meanwhile, while Carson was in the process of revising his paper (which was published in June, 1991), reporter Peter Waldman wrote a detailed story that appeared as “To Their Dismay, King Scholars Find a Troubling Pattern—Civil Rights Leader was Lax in Attributing Some Parts of His Academic Papers” on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on November 9, 1990. Time Time magazine magazine presented a similar account ten days later. A large percentage of the reading public in the United States now knew about the scandal, and it was widely assumed, especially by conservatives, that the editors of the King papers were covering up the plagiarism.

The scandal occurred at a time when a revisionist portrait of King’s human flaws was emerging from several books and academic articles. Several accounts, particularly Ralph Abernathy Abernathy, Ralph ’s autobiography, told of his philandering, claiming that King had spent time with three different women during the last night of his life. Scholars also discovered that Keith Miller, a professor of rhetoric at Arizona State University, had already published articles demonstrating that King had borrowed extensively from others. Some scholars tried to defend King’s methods. Miller, for instance, argued that African American preachers looked upon concepts and words as resources to be shared for the benefit of the community, not private property to be selfishly guarded for individual advantage.

Other scholars, however, noted that King’s academic writings showed that he understood the standard rules of documentation, and that at least one of his graduate courses covered the issue of academic honesty explicitly. In addition, King had been careful to copyright his speeches and published works, even bringing suit for the unauthorized use of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in the case of King v. Mister Maestro, Inc. (1963) King v. Mister Maestro, Inc. (1963).

Many scholars remain puzzled about King’s plagiarism. He was an able writer, and the large original portions of his writings were competent, coherent, and clearly expressed. Carson suggested that King probably did not think he had done anything improper. As evidence, he showed that King did not destroy his papers but donated them to the Boston University archives. Perhaps King simply got in the habit of copying texts, and none of his teachers ever took the time and trouble to investigate. While writing his dissertation, he was working as pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Perhaps his many duties caused him to be careless. It is also possible that he had instructed typists to paraphrase material and then neglected, or simply forgot, to check the final drafts.

It is particularly difficult to understand why King’s thesis adviser, L. Harold DeWolf, was not more critical and vigilant in checking King’s work. He was one of King’s closest personal friends—a coworker who marched with him during the Civil Rights movement. In his funeral tribute to King in 1968, DeWolf declared that he had spent many hours reading King’s papers. Because he also served as adviser for Boozer’s thesis, much of which was appropriated by King, it appears strange that he failed to recognize the obvious similarities.


In 1991, authorities at Boston University appointed a panel of professors to investigate the allegations that King had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. The panel concluded that about one third of the thesis was clearly plagiarized. After considerable debate, nevertheless, university officials decided not to revoke the doctorate. While conceding that King had acted improperly, they announced that the thesis contained original ideas and made “an intelligent contribution to scholarship.” Because he was no longer alive, moreover, the revoking of the degree would serve no valid purpose. Critics of the panel’s decision argued that the officials were likely motivated by political correctness and the desire to maintain a connection between Boston University and King’s great mystique.

Within a decade of the announcement, most had forgotten about the scandal. Those who did remember believed it to be a relatively minor flaw that did not significantly detract from the courage and high morality that King manifested in his long struggle on behalf of human rights and racial equality. Scholars commonly describe plagiarism as a form of academic dishonesty, even fraud. Students who are found guilty of such behavior are usually punished with a failing grade, sometimes even expulsion from a course or program. For academics who are familiar with the scandal, the use of the title of doctor as part of King’s name will always sound inappropriate. King, Martin Luther, Jr. Carson, Clayborne

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Clayborne, et al. “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Scholar: A Reexamination of His Theological Writings.” Journal of American History 78 (June, 1991): 23-31. This journal issue contains several articles about King’s work by David Levering Lewis, David Garrow, David Thelen, and John Highham.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, eds. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. This volume of King’s collected papers includes an annotated edition of his doctoral thesis as well as other papers of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mawdsley, Ralph. Academic Misconduct: Cheating and Plagiarism. Topeka, Kans.: NOLPE, 1994. A useful guide for research into academic standards regarding plagiarism and the excessive borrowing of others’ works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Keith D. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources. Toronto, Ont.: Free Press, 1992. Denying that King was a plagiarist, Miller argues that he practiced “voice merging” and other longstanding rhetorical devices of African American ministers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pappas, Theodore. Plagiarism and the Culture War: The Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Other Prominent Americans. Rev. ed. Tampa, Fla.: Hallberg, 1998. Thirteen early sources and essays about the scandal, including Johnson’s Sunday Telegraph column of 1989 and Pappas’s strong denunciation of King’s plagiarism. Accuses King’s apologists of ethical relativism and political correctness.

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