Hypocritical Holiday

King's Plagiarism Makes it Impossible to Revere Him

Guest column by Gerry Harbison HARBISON is a professor of chemistry.

"... plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize - only be sure always to call it please 'research.'" "Lobachevsky," by Tom Lehrer

In 1988, the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project made a discovery that shocked it to its core.

The Project, a group of academics and students, had been entrusted by Coretta Scott King with the task of editing King's papers for publication. As they examined King's student essays and his dissertation, they gradually became aware that King was guilty of massive plagiarism - that is, he had copied the words of other authors word-for-word, without making it clear that what he was writing was not his own.

The Project spent years uncovering the full extent of King's plagiarism. In November 1990, word leaked to the press, and they had to go public. The revelations caused a minor scandal and then were promptly forgotten.

Indeed, I had never heard of them until I read a student letter to the Daily Nebraskan three weeks ago. That letter sent me in search of the truth about Martin Luther King Jr.'s student career.

Like most graduate students, King spent the first half of his doctoral work taking courses in his degree area, theology. His surviving papers from that period show that from the very beginning he was transcribing articles by eminent theologians, often word for word, and representing them as his own work.

After completing his course work, graduate students usually write a dissertation or thesis, supposedly an independent and original contribution to scholarship. King's thesis was anything but original. In fact, the sheer extent of his plagiarism is breathtaking.

Page after page contains nothing but direct, verbatim transcriptions of the work of others. In 1990, the King Project estimated that less than half of some chapters was actually written by King himself. Since then, even more of his "borrowings" have been traced.

Calculating the exact extent of his plagiarism will require a computer analysis, but having looked over Chapter III in detail, I estimate that at least three quarters of it was stolen from other authors.

King stole from the subjects of his dissertation, the theologians Tillich and Wieman. He copied the writings of other theologians - passages from philosophy textbooks. But most unforgivably of all, thousands of words in paragraph-sized chunks, were taken from the thesis of a fellow student, Jack Boozer, an ex-army chaplain who returned to Boston University after the war to get his degree.

We even know how he did it, for King was systematic in his plagiarism. He copied significant phrases, sentences or whole paragraphs from the books he was consulting onto a set of index cards. "Writing" a thesis was then a matter of arranging these cards into a meaningful order.

Sometimes he linked the stolen parts together with an occasional phrase of his own, but as often as not he left the words completely unchanged. The index cards still survive, with their damning evidence intact.

King fooled everybody: his adviser, his thesis reader and King scholars for more than 30 years. Nor did he stop after graduation; as early as the 1970s, King scholar Ira Zepp noticed that sections of King's first published book Striding Towards Freedom were taken verbatim from Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros and Paul Ramsay's Basic Christian Ethics (sheesh!).

Zepp, as so many have done since then, remained silent.

Everything I've written above can easily be verified in a couple of hours in Love Library. None of it comes from right-wing scandalmongers who might have a vested interest in damaging King's reputation.

But if King's plagiarism is so serious and so extensive, why do we so rarely hear about it? Partly it is because the American public thinks of plagiarism as an obscure issue that only an egghead professor could get steamed up about.

And to some extent they're right. King's academic dishonesty is after all mostly irrelevant to his life's work. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did us all a great good by ending the greatest social evil of mid-20th century America - legally sanctioned segregation and racial discrimination. That movement is not in the least diminished by the ethical shortcomings of one of its leaders.

But more than that, American culture has personified the virtues of the Civil Rights movement - tolerance, nonviolence, and insistence on the integrity of the individual - in Martin Luther King Jr. That mythic King bears little resemblance to the real, the historical Martin Luther King Jr.

It would be safe and easy for UNL to play along with this comfortable myth.

But we shouldn't.

Plagiarism isn't a mere peccadillo. It is a direct threat to our academic integrity. When a student plagiarizes, he undermines academic standards by receiving a grade for ideas or expression that are not his own, and he cheats other students who have earned their grades honestly.

When a scholar plagiarizes, he defrauds other scholars of due credit for their work, and he contaminates scholarship by making it difficult or impossible to trace the evolution of ideas.

Remember how major-league baseball banned Pete Rose? Rose gambled on games, a minor transgression to most, but one that baseball felt undermined its the very integrity. In the same way, plagiarism subverts our integrity. Surely UNL can at least aspire to the same standards as organized baseball?

More than this, as scholars we have a responsibility to separate myth from truth. For example, we insist on making a distinction between creation myths and the scientific truth of evolution. Even though some of our students adhere to the biblical story of creation - and when we teach evolution we may cause offense and do violence to their beliefs - we can't fail to teach and research the truth out of a misplaced 'sensitivity.'

In the same way, we have a responsibility to confront Martin Luther King Jr. as the man he was, not the icon some of us revere.

Our chancellor insists we can diversify UNL without compromising academic standards. But if so, how can we, in the name of diversity, declare an academic holiday to honor a man whose entire career was marred by the most blatant academic dishonesty?

I personally have had one student expelled, and flunked several others, for turning in plagiarized papers. Can we really look those students in the face, insist that what they did was seriously wrong, and then in good conscience vote for a King holiday?

I don't think so.