King’s Doctorate Upheld Despite Plagiarisms

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A panel of scholars at Boston University has decided that the doctorate earned there by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 should not be revoked even though his dissertation contains plagiarisms that were revealed last year, shocking admirers of the slain civil rights leader.

Instead, the Boston University committee, in a report released Thursday, recommended that a disciplinary letter noting the scholarly improprieties be attached to the official copy of King’s theology dissertation in the school’s library.

The move seems to end an awkward episode in historical research that inadvertently fed the nation’s appetite for knocking heroes.


The controversy began last November when Stanford University history Prof. Clayborne Carson, who was appointed by King’s widow to edit his papers, disclosed the plagiarism. The Boston University report strongly supports Carson, whose findings triggered recriminations against him from within the civil rights movement and glee from some King opponents.

“There is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation,” the Boston University report declared, also stressing that the dissertation had enough original material to uphold the degree from the graduate school’s Division of Religious Studies. The four-man panel said that revoking the degree of a dead man, with no opportunity for him to defend himself, “would have no basis in accepted academic or scholarly practice.”

Prof. John H. Cartwright, who holds the Martin Luther King Jr. chair in social ethics at Boston University and was on the review panel, said the group was aware that its inquiry was politically sensitive. But he maintained that it resisted outside pressures and would have made the same decision if someone other than King had been the subject.

The committee declared that King’s failure “to cite sources accurately and fully in many parts of the dissertation . . . does not detract from his enormous contributions as a leader in the civil rights movement and as a symbol of accomplishment and vision for all people.”

King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for leading the integration movement. His admirers said the plagiarism should not detract from King’s place in history any more than reports of his alleged marital infidelity.

Speaking from Stanford, Carson said the Boston decision “is what anyone familiar with the evidence and familiar with normal academic procedures would have expected.” Asked if he felt vindicated, Carson said: “I don’t know if it’s a matter of vindication. We weren’t interpreting evidence, we were simply reporting evidence.”


Carson said he and his researchers have felt pressure from “people who just assumed my motive might have been to harm the reputation of King, which was certainly not the case. And we heard from the other side, people who have an ax to grind against King and (the King birthday) holiday and who, if anything, said we were not doing enough.” He stressed that Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, never asked him to suppress the material.

According to Carson, King’s dissertation, entitled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” presented some of Tillich’s ideas in some passages nearly identical to Tillich’s writings and did not attribute them in footnotes.

Worse, in the view of most academic standards, was King’s appropriation of works by other writers about Tillich, including a 1952 doctoral dissertation by another Boston University student. In the general bibliography of his thesis, King referred to the other student’s dissertation but did not cite particular passages.

The Boston University panel was established right after Carson’s revelation last November. The report has been accepted by the university’s provost and is expected to be approved soon by the school’s president, a spokesman said. Among other sources, members talked to Carson and Prof. S. Paul Schilling, the only survivor of the two faculty members who reviewed King’s work in 1956. In a letter last year to Carson, Schilling denied that King was given any special treatment as a Southern black. Schilling said his own inexperience at the time may have allowed “shoddy scholarship” to go undetected and that King may have made mistakes because he was extremely busy as the pastor of a Baptist church while writing the thesis.

The committee suggested: “Perhaps a better explanation is that no one had reason to be suspicious, especially in light of Dr. King’s obvious talents.” While King did not properly attribute some material and breached “academic norms,” the heart of his dissertation still “makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship,” the panel said.

The committee cited a computer study in which Carson and his researchers determined that improper borrowings in the dissertation ranged from almost none in one chapter to more than half of the sentences in another.


King donated many of his writings to Boston University six years before his 1968 assassination. In a case that began before the plagiarism controversy and remains unresolved, his widow has sued to recover them. The first volume of the edited papers is expected to be published by the University of California Press early in 1992, a project of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in conjunction with Emory University and Stanford. The second volume, which points out the plagiarism, is to follow later in the year.

Steve Klein, spokesman for King Center in Atlanta, said that neither he nor King’s widow had seen the Boston University report. But he said that a summary announcement from the university “seems fairly positive.”

“Dr. King got the Nobel Prize for Peace for his courageous leadership in the civil rights movement. It seems pretty obvious that his place in history will neither rise nor fall on the quality of a couple of footnotes,” Klein said.

In addition to Cartwright, the other committee members were Robert C. Neville, dean of Boston University’s School of Theology; Ray L. Hart, chairman of the the religion department at Boston University, and Charley D. Hardwick, religious studies professor at American University in Washington.