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The Paper Chase : Scholarship: The Martin Luther King research team warns against distorting its findings of plagiarism. The dream and the dreamer will survive, they say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reports of the death of scholarly ideals, according to the head scholar, were greatly exaggerated.

No students wept. No researchers resigned. No faculty breasts were beaten in the eucalyptus-shaded corridors of Stanford. In fact, said Clayborne Carson, director of the project that recently announced evidence of “selectively appropriated passages” in the graduate-school writings of Martin Luther King Jr., the “emotional climate of the project was definitely overdone in the (newspaper) article.”

The article was a Nov. 9 story in the Wall Street Journal. It confirmed 30 months of academic leaks and whispers that had claimed King used the uncredited phrases and thoughts of other theologians in his university work. The Journal spoke of “anguish and soul-searching” among project scholars.

Not quite, according to Carson: “Although I heard, through the grapevine, that one person . . . asked not to be listed in the acknowledgements for the volume. They didn’t feel that it would help their career.”

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On the other hand, in Atlanta and at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, sponsor of the estimated 12-year project to collate and publish King’s papers, the suggestion of his plagiaries has formed a heavier depression. It fell also upon nearby Emory University, another partner in the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project.

“I did in fact lose sleep over it (the allegations),” said Ralph Luker, an Atlanta minister, teacher, and associate editor of the papers. And at Emory, he said, several opinions were expressed by footwork. “Some students recognized that doing source checks was a legitimate form of endeavor, but it could do nothing but diminish the reputation of Dr. King. So two or three made graceful exits. They found that kind of research distasteful.”

Yet, he said, there is no project disharmony in the variant emotions at Stanford and Emory. It was simply a question of geography dictating the greater sensitivity. “Clay (Carson) is working at 3,000 miles distance,” Luker explained. “We’re in the (Martin Luther King) heartland.”

Not that this, the latest revision of the King image, passed unnoticed at Stanford. (Last year, a book by the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy claimed that King, a Nobel laureate, engaged in extramarital sex.)

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Carson said he has received--by mail, telephone and faculty asides when working out on the basketball court--the standard and expected surge of public and scholastic commentary. It has been in balance: From supportive to hateful, he said, from thoughtful friends to lunatic strangers.

The professor says he is a little confused by it all, sometimes stung by the letters and always frustrated by the media’s selective treatment of the issue. For within their narrow coverage, Carson said, may lurk the impression that “this is what our research is all about . . . that we spent three years looking for plagiarism.

“That certainly is not the case. Of all those dozens of students who have worked on the project, many of them never dealt with plagiarism issues. Their research had to do with what I would consider to be more important issues.”

Those issues, he continued, involve the collection and assembly of King’s correspondence, sermons, public statements, published writings and unpublished manuscripts “tracing his evolving religious views and . . . King’s considerable awareness of theological scholarship.”

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Carson, however, recognizes media appetite for sound bites and the astounding. Had the team announced recovery of King’s childhood letters to his parents--which it has indeed discovered--"I dare say that nobody would have showed up at the press conference. But anything that has to do with scandal, then we can count on getting Page 1 news.”

Yet Carson’s small, ever-rotating Stanford research team of 18 students and paid staff survives.

Said graduate student Megan Maxwell, 22, of Princeton, N.J.: “We’re not defaming him (King), we are not lying about him, and I don’t think we are damaging him.

Said Peter Holloran, 24, of Seattle, an editorial assistant with the papers project: “My role is not preserving a legacy, but preserving study and scholarship of King. Now we’ve got a better understanding of the sources of King’s ideas.

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“These findings suggest there were other influences in his life. He just didn’t acknowledge them.”

Carson feels no satisfaction at unearthing a 35-year-old negative.

The work, he insisted, “was not a morale booster, something you wanted to do.” Yet historically, professionally and by the project’s mandate, it had to be done.

So there is no guilt. Nor does Carson feel a betrayal of King, the man he followed and first heard during the 250,000-person March on Washington in 1963.

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“It is better to know more than to know less,” he says.

Pure research ignores nothing, the professor says. It is charged with separating substance from image and public relations from genuine political movement. And the nature of scholarly research is iconoclasm. Especially with icons.

So pursuing and finally presenting unknown and even potentially damaging details, Carson continued, “is trying to define who King is . . . and (knowing that) part of what you are looking at is the real King, the person who lived, the flesh and blood individual.”

Yet in that humanizing of King, he acknowledged, there has arisen a new and unhappy public image of Carson as “the grinch who stole the (Martin Luther) King day. And that isn’t me.”

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(To date, the Stanford findings have not been used to reinforce any states’ stands to set aside Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It will be observed Jan. 21--but not in Arizona, Montana and New Hampshire, which do not honor the federal holiday.)

Who Carson is, he says, is a 46-year-old professor of history speaking not for Stanford University but for the independent Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, which happens to be housed at Stanford.

What that project is, he continues, is “probably the largest and the most extensive and certainly scholarly venture ever undertaken in African-American history.

“And the fact that it was initiated by an independent, black-run institution (the King Center in Atlanta) in association with major research universities is, I think, important.”

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The center initiated the project in 1984, estimating that the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. would be a 12-year effort resulting in 14 volumes. Carson, a UCLA Ph.D., civil rights activist, author of black histories and an adviser on the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” was Coretta Scott King’s choice to direct the project.

So far, the team has spent $1 million and has burrowed into 300,000 papers.

There are those childhood letters to King’s parents and a copy of his first sermon as a Baptist minister. There are notes for speeches never given, a sixth-grade report card, and scribbles on a Waldorf-Astoria message pad that were King’s jailhouse instructions to then-associate Andrew Young.

And there is King’s doctoral dissertation.

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In June, 1988, Stanford graduate student Tom Jackson was given the assignment of annotating King’s dissertation.

The student King, heavily influenced by writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, Hegel, Thoreau and Reinhold Niebuhr, had chosen to explore the conceptions of God in the thinking of theologians Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman. Boston University awarded a doctorate in systematic theology to King in 1955.

“I started on Page 1, checking his (King’s) footnotes against the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, other reference materials and cited sources,” Jackson said. “I noticed this sloppy use of quotation marks and that’s what alerted me to the possibility of deeper violations of academic standards.”

Jackson took his suspicions to director Carson.

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Carson told his researcher to keep checking.

Jackson--eventually joined by a small platoon of editors and students--found more than sloppy quotation marks.

Many papers, he said, contained passages similar or identical to texts King had consulted, but not cited as sources. King identified sources in the bibliography and in some notes, but used few citation or quotation marks.

King presented one scholar’s argument as his own. In another instance--involving a paper he wrote as a divinity student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania--King even adopted the first-person pronoun used by a source.

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Wrote Edgar S. Brightman in “The Finding of God”: “We have granted freely, however, that final intellectual certainty is impossible . . . we can never attain complete knowledge of proof of the real.”

Wrote King in his paper “The Place of Reason and Experience in Finding God”: “We must grant freely, however, that final intellectual certainty about God is impossible . . . we can never gain complete knowledge or proof of the real.”

And in one classic example that two wrongs don’t make a right, King appropriated passages from one source who had earlier appropriated the same passages from theologian Tillich.

Jackson sees what he initiated as “a fairly cut and dried exercise that has had tremendous (public) implication and consequences.” But not happy consequences.

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“I realized no joy in finding his scholarship had shortcomings,” he said. “I’m not going to excuse it. But there’s also a tremendous amount to esteem in his life--his opposition to the Vietnam War, his mobilization of urban force--other and greater things about Martin Luther King that I prefer to concentrate on.”

After 18 months, the cautious researchers realized and confirmed the findings of plagiarism, and Carson carried them to a meeting of the project’s advisory board in Atlanta. Coretta King heads that board and chaired the meeting that would accuse her late husband.

Mrs. King has consistently declined to comment on the Stanford findings, choosing to deflect media inquiries to Carson. She declined to comment for this article.

Carson said Mrs. King realized “that this is just another side of King that came out . . . and I think she feels pretty secure in the notion that King’s historical importance is not based on the image.”

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Was she alerted, early in the project, that such a long and intense examination of her husband’s papers could produce secret shortcomings?

“First of all, she understands that there is a lot of controversy over King,” Carson explained. “And that that can’t be avoided.

“I don’t even think she needed to be warned. Probably she was more aware of it than I was when I got into this thing. Because she had been through some controversies.”

Did she argue against public release of the plagiarism material? “There was never any sense that . . . (we) couldn’t announce it,” he said.

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Was there any suggestion of suppression? “She wouldn’t have said that. She would know the implications of that.”

At that October, 1989, meeting, members agreed that the Carson team’s findings would be written in a scholarly article for publication by the Journal of American History. They would then be included in the initial two volumes of the papers, originally scheduled for publication early this year.

But the findings already had leaked.

In December, 1988, Stanford University News Service distributed a fairly innocent, four-page press release, devoted to progress of the King Papers Project.

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But it quoted a summer researcher, Michael Warren, a Yale University undergraduate, who said he had learned “that it’s very easy to produce sloppy scholarship. Some authors put half quotes down or they are sloppy about paraphrasing. We’ve even seen that in King’s own graduate schoolwork.”

Twelve months later, Britain’s Sunday Telegraph published a story noting that “researchers in his native Georgia” would soon decide the release of information that “the late Martin Luther King, murdered in 1968, was, in addition to his other human failings, a plagiarist.” The information was loosely attributed to “an American . . . who learnt it from one of the scholars involved.”

Independent of research at Stanford and Emory, in January, 1990, came the second of two academic articles written by Keith Miller, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Arizona State University. Miller noted that many of King’s writings contained phrases borrowed from others. Without attribution.

And then Clay Carson learned that Peter Waldman, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was preparing an extensive story on doubts surrounding King’s dissertation.

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On Nov. 9, Waldman’s story appeared on Page 1 of the Wall Street Journal.

That afternoon, Carson was forced into a full-scale press conference at Stanford.

At no time, Carson said, was there any intention to downplay the issue or bury it among weightier work. There was every intention to present it “in the context of all the other research we had done, so at least the full measure of our research would be known.

“The way I wanted it to come out was through a scholarly article. I wanted to develop a definitive statement of what we had found and how it fit into the other evidence that we knew.

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“Readers would then understand that, yeah, this might be getting a lot of attention, but they would be able to see everything else.”

That article was to have been published this month.

“What I didn’t count on was the glacial pace of scholarly journals,” Carson said. And now “not one person out of a hundred who read those (newspaper) articles and looked at the parallel passages . . . cared about what did the parallel passages say.”

And in the academic convulsions surrounding the delicate issue, publication of the first two volumes fell 18 months behind. They will be published by the University of California Press in 1992.

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In his own writings, in the press releases he approved and the comments he has made on the issue, Carson is cautious with one word: plagiarism.

“I debated about whether to use the P word,” he said. “That was a big debate and I felt reluctant to use the word simply because I did not want to be put in the position of being judge and jury.

“But if I didn’t use the word, it would be clear that everyone would say . . . ‘Well, you’re just using a euphemism and you are just being defensive.’ So, in the end, I felt that there was probably less controversy if we simply said: Yeah, this can be defined as plagiarism.”

But to judge King now, Carson warns, unfairly accuses an individual who cannot defend himself.

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“King can’t say what was going on in his head, all the various defenses that come up in plagiarism cases in academic life,” he continued. “Like, ‘Well, it is an honest mistake and here are my notes’ . . . ‘I simply didn’t distinguish between a paraphrase and a direct quote’ . . . or, ‘What’s so wrong? Here, on Page 5 I gave credit to this guy . . . ‘ “

Carson believes that even if the appropriations had been discovered by Boston University examiners in 1955, King’s punishment would have been minor.

“They would simply have said: ‘Go back and be more careful,’ ” he continued. “I can’t imagine that given his record and given the nature of his offense, that anything greater than a reprimand . . . would have happened.”

And had it happened today, had King been found guilty of plagiarism by a modern university, “the irony is . . . he would have served his sentence and the record would have been sealed and it would have been secret from all us prying historians.”

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Consequently, Carson believes that despite Boston University’s recently announced review of the original dissertation, there should be no posthumous revocation of King’s doctoral degree.

Was it plagiarism? Or sloppy composition?

“I think a bit of both,” Carson acknowledged.

For in 1955, he said, King was pressured by time, national developments, personal opportunities and social change. He had been an ordained minister for eight years and was already preaching at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. There was his work with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

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And within months, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress with tired feet, would refuse to give a white person her seat on a Montgomery bus.

“So he wanted to get out of graduate school as quickly as possible, and that’s the usual set of circumstances that lead people to bend the rules,” Carson said.

Other strictures may have prompted King to cut corners and settle for a sloppy presentation. He wrote his dissertation in Montgomery, far from the reference volumes of Boston University, and his primary references would have been his own rough notes.

“I can imagine a situation where he wouldn’t have been able to check notes and quotes against the originals,” Carson said. “You can imagine, for a black person in Montgomery in 1955, what resources would have been available to him.

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“He certainly would not have been able to go to the public library. Even if he had, the public library wouldn’t have had a large section of systematic theology.”

So Carson thinks that King--winner of the Plafker Award as outstanding student at Crozer and winner of a J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship for graduate study--did the best he could.

Carson warns that placing any emphasis on plagiarism misses a major point, which centers on the richness of King’s oratory, the sources of his inspiration and the structure of his leadership.

“King learned a way of expressing his ideas that was extremely effective,” Carson noted. “Now, he might have done it in graduate school in a way that potentially could have got him into a lot of trouble.

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“But I would argue that was a great skill to carry away. Not plagiarism, but the ability to draw upon a variety of sources, to have cogent phrases that are capable of expressing what you believe.”

That, Carson said, proves King to be more synthesizer than scholar. Scholars create original ideas. Synthesizers cull to express effective ideas.

“And when you compare his (King’s) speeches or his sermons with . . . even the better political figures or ministers, there is a richness there that comes from the fact that he is able to draw upon such a diversity of intellectual sources.”

Carson suggests dissecting King’s oratory. It draws heavily on the man’s memories--of the Bible, of Hegel and Brightman.

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“You will see the Augustinian way of arguing things,” Carson said. “You can see exactly what he is drawing upon and say: ‘Oh, yes, this is derivative.’ But so what? I wish that George Bush were so derivative.”

It will be at least a decade before the King Papers Project is finished. That leaves plenty of material and time, Carson knows, for further controversy.

But if anything has surfaced to date that would reinforce claims concerning King the womanizer, Carson isn’t ready to discuss it.

“We just don’t talk about the work that we have in progress,” he said. “When we are ready to publish something, we will publish it.”

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But when all revelations and realizations are done, Carson believes, the public view of King will be of “a very complex individual, not a simplistic figure . . . and that makes him much more interesting.

“It is not any accident that King still attracts an enormous amount of scholarly interest,” he said. “There have been two Pulitzer Prize-winning books about King in the last five years. There haven’t been two Pulitzer Prize-winning books about Kennedy or Johnson or any of the other figures of that time.”

So how goes the dream?

“I think it is still in good shape.”

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And its dreamer?

“I think that he would have approved of what we are doing because I think he appreciated scholarship.”

COMPARING THE TEXTS

From King’s Dissertation

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The third ontological polarity which Tillich discusses is that of freedom and destiny. Here the description of the basic ontological structure and its elements reaches both its fulfillment and its turning point.

“Comparison of Conceptions of God . . . ,” Pg. 77

From Tillich’s Own Work

The third ontological polarity is that of freedom and destiny, in which the description of the basic ontological structure and its elements reaches both its fulfillment and its turning point.

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“Systematic Theology,” Vol. 1, Pg. 182


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