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Catholic in America: Martin Luther King Jr. was flawed, but does it matter?

The Michigan Catholic

January 23, 2015

Al Kresta

Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero to most Americans. Every child is taught to look up to, if not revere, him. Every rights movement polishes itself with some of King’s shine.

But, given King’s almost universal stature as a modern saint for secularists and Christians alike, we do well to remember that he was, like the rest of us, deeply flawed. His gifts of courage and leadership, as has been said, coexisted with the intellectual sin of plagiarism and the marital sin of adultery. What do we make of such a man?

In the late 1980s or early ‘90s, I interviewed Stanford’s Clayborne Carson, who since 1985 has directed the Martin Luther King Papers Project, a long-term project to edit and publish the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. In a few sentences, he referred to King’s plagiarism. He was matter of fact about it, neither enjoying the revelation nor lamenting King’s academic abuse. Since then, I’ve tried to learn how this could have happened given the academic scrutiny one must undergo to earn a doctorate. I still don’t know.

We do know that King’s plagiarism was significant and conscious. As much as three-quarters of the third chapter of his dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” is lifted verbatim from other writers. One half of the dissertation’s introduction is lifted from Walter Marshall Horton’s 1952 essay “The Theology of Paul Tillich.” In that introduction, King wrote: “In 1952 a very fine dissertation was done in this school by Jack Boozer…” It was so fine that King used thousands of Boozer’s words in his own dissertation of 1955 without citing Boozer.

What is baffling is how this could have happened. He had two dissertation advisors responsible for checking and approving his work. Although they corrected him on some matters, one of his advisors challenged him but twice on citation problems. The most glaring plagiarism escaped him.

The deeper King went into academic work the more settled became the habit. In a 1991 article in The Journal Of American History, the staff at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project wrote that “plagiarism was a general pattern evident in nearly all of his [King’s] academic writings.” Later in life, his book Stride to Freedom steals from Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros and Paul Ramsay’s Basic Christian Ethics. Both these books were standard reading for every mainline Protestant seminarian in America. Both books were commonly read and widely praised in reviews. I maintain a copy of each in my own library. It would be worse than lifting huge tracts of Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity for my dissertation and nobody, in or outside of academia, noticing it.

Why bring this up? Because students are regularly expelled for this kind of thing. Plagiarism is like counterfeiting money. It devalues the entire academic enterprise. One academic, Dr. Gerry Harbison, looking over the evidence wrote that King’s plagiarism “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.” Better we know this and integrate it into our picture of King even as we praise his virtues to our children.

His most famous writing Letter from a Birmingham Jail appears to be all his. But many of his sermons and speeches contain significant plagiarisms including the climax of the I Have a Dream speech. Sermons and speeches don’t permit footnoting and the standards are more lax. Still, however, pastors who plagiarize their sermons work hard not to get caught. It remains shameful even in this era of Internet sharing. At the Republican convention of 1952 Archibald J. Carey, Jr., an African-American lawyer, judge, alderman, diplomat and clergyman from the south side of Chicago, moved his audience with the trumpeting words that King made famous:

“We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans: My country ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims’ pride From every mountainside Let freedom ring!

“That’s exactly what we mean – from every mountain side, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia–let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States, but for the disinherited of all the earth–may the Republican Party, under God, from every mountainside, LET FREEDOM RING!”

King, however, does deserve credit for the right delivery at the right time and at the right place even if the words are largely someone else’s. That sense of the right moment deserves credit. His willingness to live and lead in fear of his life for what he knew to be right imitates Christ in Gethsemani. His confession of other sins recalls King David, great in battle, great in passion and a man after God’s own heart. But none of these marks of greatness can erase the citations he failed to make in his academic life.

The shortcomings are real but how relevant? So let truth-telling ring but how loudly? Paraphrasing Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by Dr. King, we might say: When a man fills our history with his footprints, we are understandably reluctant to start asking about his footnotes.

Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.


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