Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

By Nicholas Stix

Let’s begin the festivities by honoring the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr., the scholar.

Plagiarism and the Culture War: The Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Other Prominent Americans
By Theodore Pappas
Hallberg, 1998, 212 pages, $16.95.
Reviewed by Nicholas Stix

For the past eight years, intellectual sleuth Theodore Pappas, the former managing editor of Chronicles magazine, has hunted down prominent incidents of plagiarism, most notably those involving the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. His book operates on four levels: as a scholarly investigation into whether King plagiarized his 1955 Boston University doctoral dissertation; as an inquiry into the conduct of the guardians of the King legacy (Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, the King family, et al.); as a study of the academic-publishing-media image complex that connived with the guardians to cover up the scandal; and as a brief history of plagiarism, from its 18th-century origins to its present status in an academic world lacking intellectual integrity.

Pappas emphasizes that Martin King, as the younger King was known, was a great and courageous, though flawed human being. However, in recent years an idolatrous movement has developed that has implicitly removed King from the ranks of the human.

Pappas shows that King’s compulsive coveting of other men’s words went back at least to his undergraduate days at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, and continued at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. “King’s plagiarisms grow more sweeping with each year he progresses in higher education.” Ultimately, King stole the most dramatic passages of his speech, “I Have a Dream,” from an address by the Rev. Archibald Carey at the 1952 Republican Convention.

Pappas prints extensive parallel excerpts from King’s student papers at Morehouse, on through his Boston University doctoral dissertation, and their sources. BU officials eventually admitted that King had pilfered one-third of his dissertation from Jack Stewart Boozer’s 1952 Boston University dissertation. (Evidently, 1952 was a very good year!) But first the predominantly white, politically diverse Friends of Martin went on the offensive: They lied, denied, and sought to silence the whistleblowers.

From 1987-90, Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project, deliberately misled journalists. And instead of simply comparing the dissertations in his own school’s library, Boston University President Jon Westling unquestioningly accepted Carson’s claims, insisting in 1990 that “not a single instance of plagiarism of any sort has been identified.”

Mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, New Republic, Washington Post and Atlanta Journal/Constitution, sat on the story for a year, and only ran it after a mealy-mouthed report appeared in the Wall Street Journal, one year after the British Sunday Telegraph had told the entire story.

And then there is Keith Miller. A white composition instructor at Arizona State University, Miller espouses a theory of “voice merging,” which holds that blacks cannot commit plagiarism, because the black oral tradition does not recognize intellectual property rights, and that King merely took the words of white men in order to make himself intelligible and acceptable to white audiences.

As Pappas points out, MLK believed in intellectual property rights; he had taken a course at BU devoted to plagiarism and scholarly standards; he copyrighted his plagiarized speeches; and Miller provides no evidence that King saw himself as part of the “tradition” that Miller has posited. There is no “voice merging” tradition; Keith Miller made it up, with its attendant revision of black American (and thus American) history, with the sole and explicit purpose of rescuing King’s scholarly reputation.

Pappas suggests that the young King escaped apprehension due either to an early form of affirmative action or his professors’ laziness and incompetence. And that was back in the good old days. As Thomas Sowell recently noted, the title “full professor” may need to be replaced with “empty professor.”

After spending my first year teaching college buried in plagiarized term papers, I stopped assigning take-home papers. In seven years as an instructor, I have never heard of a student being disciplined for plagiarism (though I do know of instructors who were fired for attempting to discipline student-plagiarists). Many students fail to comprehend the very concept. They understand only that copying from influential authors without attribution brings “A”s from most instructors, while angering others. Today’s colleges have in effect institutionalized a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding plagiarism.

(Originally published in the unfortunately since defunct American Enterprise magazine in, I believe, a 1998 issue.)

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