[This review was published in the Spring 1994 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 125-128.]


Book Review


The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story

Theodore Pappas, editor

Rockford Institute, 1994 


            In the Honors Great Books seminar that this reviewer conducts at his university, we recently discussed a passage from John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty.”  One of the things Mill most emphasized was the value of free-speech as an on-going process of honing the truth and confronting error.

            Unfortunately, such an inspirational piece rings hollow with naivete for many of us in late twentieth century America, not because we no longer support free speech, but because we know from long experience that such freedom often falls far short of its promise.  In America today, great obeisance is given to the concept, but a truly open marketplace of ideas hardly exists.  Our public discourse, such as it is, is replete with intensively cultivated illusions and blackholes of non-speak.

            On the left twenty-five years ago, Herbert Marcuse argued in his essay “Repressive Tolerance” that freedom of speech backfires in a bourgeois society by providing a weapon through which the mass of men are lulled into a complacent acceptance of things as they are.  He offered a totalitarian solution: allow freedom for the Left and repress the views of the Right.

            This was, of course, a vicious critique to anyone who didn’t share Marcuse’s revolutionary socialist aspirations.  But on one thing at least he was very perceptive: he saw a possibility that was for many hardly thinkable, that instead of being full of vitality and openness, free speech can take on a surreal quality, skewed by structural warpings caused by a number of factors.

            This leads us to the fact that such a skewing is a major feature of American life today.  Although a great many Americans hold differing views as individuals, the fetid atmosphere of “respectable” opinion in the academic world and the major media is determined by the Left and pursues the fetishes and neuroses dictated by an egalitarian pandering to a whole series of incurably disaffected groups, all of which together form the alliance that constitutes the bulk of the Left’s effective support.

            A grasp of this is essential if we are to understand what has happened to the revelations, out in the open since 1989, that Martin Luther King, Jr., plagiarized virtually everything he wrote, from papers in school, to his doctoral dissertation, to his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” to his “I Have a Dream” speech.  These revelations, along with others about his chronic adultery and his ideological support for Communist revolutions around the world, have been met by a wall of silence.  Rather than answered, they have been ignored, so that Americans continue, as they have since Congress declared the holiday in 1984, to honor “Martin Luther King Day.”  Despite all that is known, King’s picture continues to adorn schoolroom walls all over America.  The reality of what King was counts not at all.  Smug illusion reigns supreme, the ears of the body politic plugged up by the wax of a quasitotalitarian insistence that nothing is to be heard that is consistent with received opinion.

            The Rockford Institute, publisher of Chronicles magazine and now of this book, has earned a place of considerable honor by its continuing unwillingness to accept this state of affairs.  It refuses to abide the silence.  In its refusal, it carries the spiritual torch that truly free men have carried in all ages.

            The book under review is a compilation of the articles and letters that form the history of the revelations of King’s plagiarism.  It is an apparent attempt by the Institute to keep the issue alive in light of the fact that Theodore Pappas’ main article in the January 1991 Chronicles has been so universally ignored.  The book deserves to be in every library, in every catalog and computerized listing, so that students preparing papers on King can have access to it.  And its brief 107 pages deserve to be perused by millions of Americans, with the hope that it will stimulate them to throw off the hypocrisy that imposes King on us as a near-Christlike idol.

            After an introduction reflecting broadly on the relationship of plagiarism to culture and the academy, for which an article written by Theodore Pappas in the December 1993 issue of Humanitas is used, the book proceeds in chronological order, starting with the early disclosure of King’s plagiarism in his Boston University doctoral dissertation made in the London Sunday Telegraph article in December 1989.  We are then given an excerpt from Thomas Fleming’s article in the September 1990 Chronicles briefly mentioning the plagiarism.  This sparked a letter from Boston University’s then acting-president Jon Westling denying that “a single instance of plagiarism of any sort has been identified.”  This has to be a classic example of “leading with your chin,” because the letter, to what must surely be Westling’s immortal embarrassment, was thereupon published simultaneously with Pappas’ major article in the January 1991 issue.  That article detailed the plagiarism line-by-line and passage-by-passage.  The reader of that issue (and now, of course, of this book) sees a literal copying by King of large sections from a dissertation done at Boston University by a certain Jack Boozer in 1952, three years before King put together “his” dissertation.  Pappas points out that King even copied errors of punctuation and inaccuracies of footnoting.  An oddity is that both Boozer and King had the same dissertation adviser, who somehow failed to recognize Boozer’s work when it came at him the second time around.

            This main article is the high point of the book, but we are given additional insights when we read the Wall Street Journal’s report on the plagiarism, which actually beat Pappas’ article into print by appearing in November 1990.  This is followed by the New Republic’s short history of the revelations in its January 28, 1991, issue.  It is worth noting that the article confesses that the New Republic had known of the plagiarism for almost a year, but that “sentimentality and ‘correct politics’ inhibited the editors from vigorously pursuing the story.”  (It is amazing what the New Republic has had to confess to in its years of existence; but as a journal it is capable of letting such things pass off quickly and be forgotten.  It’s an art form, as any good negotiator knows.)

            The rest of the book publishes the give-and-take of correspondence and editorial response that then occurred between apologists (an emeritus dean and an assistant provost) at Boston University and the editors of Chronicles.  This, together with acting-president Westling’s earlier letter, is valuable as an object lesson in just how craven America’s predominant elite, if we may call it that, has become.

            Although by the very nature of its subject the book is stalwart and courageous on behalf of truth and academic integrity, it is to be regretted that this is weakened in two ways, which in all candor should not be allowed to go unmentioned.  Somebody at the Institute apparently thought there should be a softening equivocation, and this resulted in an unfortunate Foreword by Jacob Neusner.  Neusner finds it desirable to pander to the prevailing beatification of King, with such comments as “I believe Martin Luther King, Jr., was a man of conscience and character—but flesh and blood like the rest of us.”  Again: “Why… must Martin Luther King be remembered in an implausible image of perfection, when the full and human man leaves a so much greater heritage of human achievement…?”  But this is sophistry.  We may imagine that many men disgraced by fraud, adultery and other deeds would like to have Neusner in their corner.

            The second criticism is of lesser importance.  Other than as mentioned in the New Republic piece, no credit is given to the fact that “three right-wing journals” broke the plagiarism story in this country before either Chronicles or the Wall Street Journal.   The failure to give this recognition hints that there is a pecking order within American conservatism.

            I remember an essay long ago by Dwight MacDonald about how outright falsification has become a feature of modern life, giving us a fake reality with which to deal.  One of the virtues of the book under review is that it reminds us of several recent controversies raising questions of plagiarism and sometimes of fraud: “Alex Haley, for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots; Dee Brown, for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Gail Sheehy, for Passages; Ken Follett, for The Key to Rebecca; Norman Mailer, for his biography of Marilyn Monroe; … and Maya Angelou, for her much-heralded ‘Inaugural Poem.’  Nor are these all. 

Need for a Broader Critique of King

            The book has a specific purpose, to lay bare the sordid story of King’s plagiarism and its aftermath, consisting largely of efforts, not just by Boston University but by many others, to cover it up.  Just the same, it is important that Americans today arrive at an honest critique, too, of King’s ideology and politics.  His life has been sanitized (by what the New Left would have decried as a sinister cooptation) into an image of “peace and non-violence,” and in this sanitized form can be folded nicely into our national life; but the problem is that the image is contradicted by so much that King said and did.  Not only is making him a colossus an affront to average Americans; it opens a pandora’s box of future possibilities based on a truer perception of what he actually stood for. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Dwight D. Murphey