The story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plagiarism has elicited a number of responses, most of them disingenuous. Walter Muelder, the former dean of Boston University’s School of Theology, would like to exculpate Boston University’s Jon Westling (see page 4) but only succeeds in making matters worse. Mr. Muelder casually reveals what should have been evident all along: that from beginning to end, from the December 1989 interview with the London Telegraph to the present. King Papers editor Clayborne Carson has consistently misrepresented the facts and distorted the evidence. According to Mr. Muelder, Mr. Carson denied King’s plagiarism to Mr. Westling “unambiguously,” and apparently this is where the latter got the notion that “not a single instance” of plagiarism is evident in any of the 343 pages of King’s dissertation. One scholar who did not hesitate to use the “P-word” was King’s biographer, David Garrow. Misled by the New York Times‘ November 10 story, we accused Mr. Garrow of being part of the cover-up. We were mistaken and apologize. Mr. Garrow found out the story about the same time as other King scholars and had been assured that Mr. Carson would be forthcoming with the truth.
In fact, even though it is now known that King plagiarized far more than just his doctoral dissertation, including many of his other essays and speeches, Mr. Carson continues his campaign of deception and distortion. An article in the November/December 1990 Stanford Observer quotes him as saying “his [King’s] professors did not expect originality in his compositions.” Surely Dr. Carson, Ph.D., knows that the chief requirement of a doctoral dissertation is that it constitute an original contribution to scholarship. But the prize for duplicity goes to the Stanford Observer itself, which entitled its unsigned article “Allegation of Plagiarism.” Even Carson has quit using the word “allegation.”
Mr. Carson laid on another coat of whitewash in a January 16 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In a tangle of half-truths and misrepresentations, Mr. Carson comes to the nub of the matter: “His legitimate utilization of political, philosophical, and literary texts—particularly those expressing the nation’s democratic ideals—inspired and mobilized many Americans, thereby advancing the cause of social justice.” Translation: plagiarism is excusable if done for the furtherance of “politically correct” causes. Having settled the ethical question for us, Mr. Carson then says we are to admire “King as the pre-eminent American orator of the 20th century,” even while “recognizing that textual appropriation was one aspect of a successful composition method.” It has always been realized that orators and scholars do their work in a tradition in which ideas and expressions can become common property, but what would we think of Burke or Lincoln if they systematically attempted to pass off the work of other men as their own? The answer is clear: we would classify them with the likes of a Joe Biden—or a Martin Luther King.
Mr. Muelder’s letter also clarifies something about Jon Westling of Boston University: it reveals the seriousness with which Mr. Westling viewed this matter. After John Reed’s letter, Mr. Westling contacted Mr. Muelder and had the latter contact Mr. S. Paul Schilling of Maryland, the second reader of King’s dissertation. Mr. Westling then contacted Mrs. King and the Center for King Studies in Atlanta, Clayborne Carson of Stanford, wrote John Reed in North Carolina, and even felt the need to address the “false story” of King’s plagiarism, which by his own admission was spreading “like whooping cough among the unvaccinated,” by writing Chronicles the now infamous October 5 letter. Mr. Westling obviously ran up a lot of phone bills and used a lot of stamps.
Why, then, if Mr. Westling so clearly understood the seriousness of this matter and the serious repercussions that such a story could have for the reputation of the university he represents, did he rely exclusively on information from outside sources, some of which would have an obvious interest in seeing such a charge denied and such a story suppressed? Why, in other words, did he do everything but the simplest and most logical and conclusive action of all, that of picking up the theses and examining the evidence for himself? Or why, at the very least, did he not have an aide, or his theology department, do it for him? After all, he and Boston University were in the best position of anyone to either deny or substantiate the validity of the charge. Boston University is the only university in the world that has both King’s and Boozer’s dissertations.
Mr. Westling has floated a number of excuses to justify his actions. His plea to the Chicago Tribune was that “I’m just an academic administrator trying to keep the story straight.” Westling apparently is even trying to discredit Chronicles by telling people that we sat on the evidence and deliberately delayed our story all in an effort to make him look bad. In fact, we received a copy of Boozer’s dissertation a mere two weeks before Mr. Westling sent us his letter, and we received Boozer’s actual dissertation from Boston University’s Interlibrary Loan Department only four days before; his own library would be happy to substantiate this fact. A first draft of my article was completed within two weeks of receiving the evidence, which then began the three-month publishing process through which all Chronicles articles must pass.
Boston University had the opportunity to control the cards in this matter, but Mr. Westling gave away the game. By placing his and his university’s reputation in the hands of Clayborne Carson and his coterie at the King Papers Project, Mr. Westling earned the academic dunce cap awarded to him by James Warren of the Chicago Tribune.
As we now know, a number of major newspapers knew the facts of this story but deliberately refused to publish them. According to Charles Babington’s January 28, 1991, article in the New Republic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, and the New Republic had all refused to run articles though at least one editor at each publication knew of this story as far back as last spring. The backpeddling of the Wall Street Journal has been particularly entertaining: the Journal reported the plagiarism on November 9, ran a November 15 editorial that says King’s plagiarism doesn’t reflect on the character of Mr. King but rather “tells something about the rest of us,” and then published a January 21 editorial by a Professor George McLean that praises King’s plagiarized dissertation as “a contribution to scholarship for which his doctorate was richly deserved.”
The way in which the Journal reported this story did not go unnoticed by the London Telegraph, which wrote: “such is the cravenness of the U.S. media when it comes to race that no newspaper followed [our December 1989] story, until Friday. Then, in an article full of apologetic, mealymouthed phrases, the Wall Street Journal confirmed our findings.” But perhaps the Journal‘s cravenness shouldn’t have surprised us. After all, the Journal tipped its hand in its November 15 editorial, when it stressed the importance of covering this story in a “carefully modulated” way.
Last September we received an interesting call from a man who described himself as a black college professor. He called in response to Thomas Fleming’s September Perspective, the essay in which the charges against King were mentioned and which engendered the October 5 letter from Jon Westling. Our caller said two things. First, that if we had evidence that King was indeed a plagiarist, then we should publish it forthwith, which we assured him we were in the process of doing. Second, he stated that if the charges proved to be true, then he would propose to his colleagues that the name of the hall his college had named in honor of Mr. King be immediately changed. Lecturing about academic standards in “Martin Luther King Hall” would be the height of hypocrisy and an insult to his college, he said.
Such painful honesty is apparently beyond the capacity of most academics, administrators, and American journalists.