Plagiarism and the Culture War: The Writings of MLK Jr.

by Daniel J. Flynn of

“Three death threats, one left hook to the jaw, 40 rejections from 40 publishers in 40 months, and a sold-out first edition.”

– Theodore Pappas

“Plagiarism and the Culture War is written with a sobriety that is essential to effectively discussing such sensitive topics as race and the shortcomings of a martyred hero. While hagiographers may shout ‘racism’ at any hint of imperfection attributed to the slain civil rights leader, Pappas’ courageous work assures that they can no longer continue this smokescreen with any legitimacy.”

– Campus Report


The Academic Cover-up of the King Plagiarism Story

Denizens of the campuses are fond of invoking the buzzword, “diversity.” The frequency and carelessness with which the term is used has obliterated any stable definition of this once seemingly benign word. For those unfamiliar with campus newspeak, the word “diversity” conjured up thoughts of variety and difference. When academics talk about diversity, however, the term is most often used as a euphemism for conformity.

At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, an appreciation of diversity (o the academic variety) translates into a history department that houses 49 registered Democrats and one Republican. A fairly recent study gave Democrats a 22 to 2 among Stanford’s historians. The University of Colorado-Boulder is similarly inclined toward diversity, putting forth 27 history professors enrolled in the Democratic Party and zero in the GOP. Cornell and Dartmouth shout Republican history faculty members as well, with 29 and 10 Democrats, respectively.

This Alice-in-Wonderland concept of diversity often leads to the promotion of ideas of dubious scholarship. A “gay” Lincoln, Africans discovering the Americas, and special “women’s ways of knowing” are just a few ideas that are given much credence in higher education. While much of what is taught in America’s lecture halls is certainly disturbing, a more serious affront to legitimate scholarship is academia’s sins of omission. The level-headed will always dismiss what is frivolous and included in the curriculum. What is sound and excluded will never even make it to the realm of debate.

One such omission is the painful work of Theodore Pappas unveiling Martin Luther King as an habitual plagiarist. As Pappas notes in Plagiarism and the Culture War, “No one suffers the pangs and arrows of outrageous fortune like the exposer of a famous plagiarist, for it is he, not the sinner and certainly not the sin, who becomes the center of debate, the target of abuse, and the victim of the hot and harsh lights of public scrutiny.”

And suffer Pappas has. Since exposing King as a plagiarist in 1990, Pappas notes that he has received numerous threatening letters, “most of them postmarked from university towns.” He’s been the object of insult amongst King partisans (even to the point of being assaulted.) And Plagiarism and the Culture War was rejected by 40 publishing houses before being releases in July. As one publisher, explained, “I recommend against publishing this book, because such honesty and truth-telling could only be destructive.”

The evidence laid out by Pappas of King’s plagiarism is irrefutable. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Nobel Prize Lecture, and “I have a Dream” address before a crowd of 250,000 in 1963 all contained significant portions taken from other sources. Pappas’ analyses of King’s Boston University theology dissertation, which takes up the bulk of the book, reveals dozens of passages stolen from the dissertation of Jack Boozer, and BU doctoral candidate who was awarded his Ph.D. in theology just a few years before king. One such passage reads,

“Correlation means the correspondence of data in the sense of a correspondence between religious symbols and that which is symbolized by them. It is upon the assumption of this correspondence that all utterances about God’s nature are made. This correspondence is actual in the logos nature of God and the logos nature of man.

A reading of Boozer’s original paragraph shows a difference only of an insertion of hyphens between the words “logos” and “nature,” making any side-by-side comparison of the two passages a waste of space. More than half of King’s dissertation – like the aforementioned example – reads like a near copy of Boozer’s work.

The “conjoining of different sections of Boozer’s dissertation could not have been done without great circumspection and forethought,” notes Pappas, so “it gives lie to the notion that King somehow plagiarized unintentionally.” Pappas further discounts claims that King was unaware he had engaged in any wrongdoing by observing that he had spent seven years in post-secondary education,  had taken a thesis-writing course, and had been warned by an advisor that his paper nearly quoted another work without attribution.

Many readers might wonder why King, an intelligent and capable man, would cheat his way to a Ph.D. Of more relevance is the question of why faculty let him do it. King’s doctoral advisor also played the same role with Jack Boozer. He approved Boozer’s paper in 1952 and just three years later stamped his imprimatur on King’s purloined dissertation.

Nearly four decades later, when confronted with the same chance to redeem itself in the wake of the plagiarism charges, BU chose to cover-up once again. Then acting BU President John Westling labeled the story “false,” claiming that the paper had “been scrupulously examined and reexamined by scholars,” resulting in the discovery of “Not a single instance of plagiarism.”

Clayborne Carson, editor of the federally-funded King Papers Project at Stanford University, chose obfuscation over truth as well. Carson sat on the information and denied early reports of the preacher’s intellectual theft despite knowing about it three years before the story broke. In early 1990, Carson told his underwriter, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Like him, the NEH didn’t think it necessary to disclose this inconvenient information to the American public.

When it became obvious that King did, in fact, regularly plagiarize, his academic cheerleaders chose to redefine plagiarism rather then reassess the Baptist preacher. For Arizona State University Professor Keith Miller, King’s unattributed use of other scholars’ work is “synthesizing,” “alchemizing,” “incorporations, “intertexulaizations,” everything but the “p” word. “How could such a compelling leader commit what most people define as a writer’s worst sin”? asked Miller. “The contradiction should prompt us to rethink our definition of plagiarism.”

While shameless intellectuals peddle baseless allegations about the marital fidelity of Dwight Eisenhower or spin tales of Thomas Jefferson begetting slave offspring, they consider it blasphemy to honestly assess the plagiarism of Martin Luther King. There are literally hundreds of books about King, yet one would be hard pressed to find even a handful that address the plagiarism question. With so much redundancy within this cottage industry of publishing, one would think that authors would jump at the chance to examine an unexplored facet of their subject’s life – not so!

It would be wrong to think “plagiarist” every time one reflects on the life of Martin Luther King. The Baptist minister led a movement which secured voting rights for millions of Americans deprived of suffrage and drastically reduced the amount of racial discrimination present in the United States. Questions of plagiary, adultery, and demagoguery (e.g., he labeled the philosophy of Barry Goldwater, “Hitlerism”), are secondary.

Plagiarism and the Culture War is written with a sobriety that is essential to effectively discussing such sensitive topics as race and the shortcomings of a martyred hero. While hagiographers may shout “racism” at any hint of imperfection attributed to the slain civil rights leader, Pappas’ courageous work assures that they can no longer continue this smokescreen with any legitimacy.

“Our immense debt to the man and our respect for his memory do not,” Pappas writes, “provide the slightest excuse for a political agenda that credits him with virtues that he did not have and successes that he did not achieve.”

Plagiarism and the Culture War uncovers what rational observers have known about Martin Luther King for decades: that the man canonized by the academic left was, merely a man. What it tells us about intellectuals more concerned with “diversity” than truth is far more revealing.