Three death threats, one left hook to the jaw, 40 rejections from 40 publishers in 40 months, and a sold-out first edition. Such was the response to my 1994 book, The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story.

Chronicles and I first became interested in this story in mid-1990, when we heard 1) that a university had threatened to block a scholar’s bid for tenure if he followed through with his plans to discuss King’s plagiarisms, and 2) that the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has allocated more than a million dollars of the taxpayers’ money to the King Papers Project, had long known about King’s plagiarisms but had yet to pressure Clayborne Carson, editor of the project, for a prompt disclosure of the evidence. As we later learned, NEH Director Lynne Cheney was not obligated to inform the public about these findings . . . and she didn’t.

What quickly became clear is that this story had less to do with King and his legacy, with what he did or did not do, than with larger cultural issues, such as the politicization of the academy, the ethics of the press, our obsession with multiculturalism and diversity, and the sorry state of American publishing—magazine, newspaper, and book publishing alike.

This last aspect of the story begins not in America but in England, where a semblance of free speech and open debate still exists. On December 3, 1989, Frank Johnson, the current editor of the London Spectator but then a columnist for the London Sunday Telegraph, published a short article entitled, “Martin Luther King, Jr.—Was He a Plagiarist?” As Johnson reported, “Researchers in his native Georgia must soon decide whether to reveal that the late Dr. Martin Luther King, murdered in 1968, was—in addition to his other human failings—a plagiarist. There is now much doubt as to whether his Ph.D. thesis was really his own work.” Most interesting was Johnson’s jab at America: “[This] story has not yet been published in the United States.”

Despite Johnson’s prodding, the American news media treated the King plagiarism story like the plague. Rumors of King’s plagiarisms continued to circulate in academic circles and a few rightwing journals through mid-1990, but there remained no actual evidence of King’s plagiarisms nor any acknowledgment of the story by the scholarly community’, the mainstream American press, or the National Endowment for the Humanities; an explosive story seemed to have died aborning. But all this changed when Chronicles‘ editor Thomas Fleming briefly referred to King’s plagiarisms in his September 1990 article “Revolution and Tradition in the Humanities Curriculum”: “The ‘Doctor’ should now be understood as strictly a courtesy title, since King, it has been recently revealed, apparently plagiarized his Boston University doctoral dissertation.” This was the first mention of King’s plagiarisms in the American press to garner national attention and the ire of Boston University, whose acting president, Jon Westling, sent us a letter to the editor claiming that King’s B.U. dissertation had been “scrupulously examined and reexamined” and that “not a single reader has ever found any non-attributed or misattributed quotations, misleading paraphrases, or thoughts borrowed without due scholarly reference in any of its 343 pages.” It was in response to Mr. Westling’s letter that I wrote, for our January 1991 issue, “A Doctor In Spite of Himself The Strange Career of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dissertation.” This was the first article to expose, with parallel quotations, the extent and blatancy of King’s pilfering.

The national news blackout on this story ended two weeks after we had gone to press with my story, when the Wall Street Journal heard that the story was breaking and published a front-page article about King’s plagiary on November 9, 1990. Every major newspaper and journal of opinion then followed with editorials about King’s sleight of hand. What these publications did not admit is that many of them had long known about this story, and about the overwhelming nature of the evidence, but deliberately suppressed it. As Charles Babington later revealed in the New Republic (“Embargoed,” January 28,1991), the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, and the New Republic itself all knew the facts of this story but refused to publish them. What Babington did not discuss is how, once the story broke, it was thoroughly whitewashed.

Take the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, for example. After the Time‘s initial story about King’s pilfering, it then softened the blow a few days later with a puff-ball editorial pooh-poohing the controversy. After all, it editorialized, John Kennedy had his Theodore Sorensen, George Bush his Peggy Noonan—as if taking someone’s work without permission and then claiming it as your own is somehow equivalent to the work of a paid speechwriter. The Wall Street Journal‘s backpedaling was even more embarrassing. The Journal reported the plagiarism on November 9, ran a November 15 editorial that says King’s plagiary does not so much reflect on the character of King as it “tells something about the rest of us,” and then published a January 21 editorial by a Professor George McLean that praised King’s plagiarized dissertation as “a contribution in scholarship for which his doctorate was richly deserved.” Now, one may not want to strip King of his title of “doctor” at this late date, but to say that his doctorate was “richly deserved” on the very basis of his thoroughly plagiarized dissertation (66 percent of the thesis, in fact) is absurd and dishonest.

The Journal‘s pathetic coverage of this story did not go unnoticed by the London Sunday Telegraph, which reported: “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 frill of apologetic, mealy-mouthed phrases, the Wall Street Journal confirmed our findings.” But perhaps the journal’s cravenness should not 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” manner.

“Carefully modulated” is perhaps the best way to describe the book industry’s approach to this story. Clayborne Carson’s volumes of King’s papers—in which the evidence of King’s plagiary is exhaustively presented but where Carson still claims that King’s “borrowing” only constitutes theft if we use “a strict definition of plagiarism,” and that there is still no “definite answer to the question whether King deliberately violated the standards that applied to him as a student”—have been widely reviewed and praised. And Keith Miller’s 1992 book, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources—in which the plagiarisms of King and of other minorities are discounted as “voice merging,” a cultural habit derivative of oral traditions to which the majority culture must learn to be sensitive — is today cited as the final word on this matter. Our public library here in Rockford, for example, at one time had four copies of Miller’s faux scholarship.

What the publishing industry refuses to tolerate is any honest discussion of King’s plagiary and of the literary chicanery of our leading intellectuals, political pundits, and media darlings, from Christopher Hitchens to William Bennett. Regarding the 40 publishers who rejected my book and my new edition, three of them said a study critical of any aspect of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life or work would be in “bad taste,” because “King isn’t around to defend himself” When I replied that this absurd standard would mean the end of historical studies and of scholarship in general—that this standard has not hindered the rise of our new national pastime, defaming Thomas Jefferson—I not only received no responses but in one case even got my letter back stamped, “Return to Sender”—the publisher had not even opened it. A handful of publishers said, “Great book, we’re definitely interested, now just give equal time to the other side of the story.” By “equal time” they meant a nonjudgmental discussion of the “voice merging” bilge. According to this standard, no writer could praise free trade without also praising tariffs and protectionism.

Killing debate, stifling discussion, and smothering any hint of free thinking that might disturb the verbal industries and their manufacturing of public truth—this is what American book publishing so often accomplishes today. The “reader’s recommendation” of one publisher gave away the game: “I recommend against publishing this book, because such honesty and truth-telling could only be destructive.”

Other publishers wrote off this book as a right-wing screed, even though my most vocal critics have issued from the right: meaning neoconservatives, who tolerate no criticism of King, no matter how tempered or just, because King is the founding father of their breed of conservatism; and white racists, who were disappointed to discover that this book was not the down-and-dirty dose of King-bashing that they expected. In fact, the leading “conservative” academic publisher today rejected this book because I failed to sing the virtues of the civil rights movement. When I replied that the book’s subject was plagiarism and cultural standards and not the civil rights movement, whatever the latter’s virtues, he replied, “It doesn’t matter what your purpose is.”

Concerning the death threats, only one of them was memorable, and only memorable for its tackiness: it was left on my answering machine on the morning of my wedding. Regarding the left hook to my jaw, thrown by an inebriated critic who recognized me from an interview then running on the barroom TV—it missed.

But spiking stories, suppressing books, and issuing death threats against writers who refuse to toe the politically correct line (Professor David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University received several death threats, one complete with footnotes, in the wake of Albion’s Seed, published in 1989) may no longer be necessary if the King family’s approach to intellectual property rights becomes widely accepted. In January 1997, the King family signed a deal with Time-Warner and Intellectual Properties Management (IPM) to produce and market new books of King’s writings, memoirs by family members, recordings and CDROM’s of King’s speeches, and a King-related Internet site; the deal will reportedly net the cash-strapped King estate $30-$50 million within five years.

At the heart of the deal is an aggressive enforcement of the hundreds of copyrights that King placed on “his” writings. on his most famous speeches in particular. Most disturbing, especially to the black community, has been the King family’s aggressive profiteering toward those wanting to praise King by quoting the “I Have a Dream” speech. When USA Today quoted the speech in praise of King in 1993, the King estate sued; the newspaper had to pay a $1,700 licensing fee plus legal costs. When CBS simply reran its original news footage of King giving the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963 as part of its five-part video documentary called “The 20th Century With Mike Wallace,” the King estate also sued.

But it is not just corporate giants who have been hassled and hindered in their attempt to celebrate the King legacy. When a newspaper editor in Lexington, Kentucky, wanted to honor King by printing one of his speeches from 1965, IPM made him jump through hoops to gain permission. The editor’s ordeal, according to David Garrow’s account of it in the Washington Post (“Are They Stifling the Work of Martin Luther King, Jr.?” January 28, 1997), was “long and frustrating.” “Despite an express-delivery letter and phone calls, he could not get a timely answer; only at the last minute did his newspaper receive approval to reprint the speech.”

To make matters worse, once permission is granted to reprint King’s work, the fees charged by the King estate are also often excessive. Richard Lischer, a professor of divinity at Duke University, told the New York Times that his book The Preacher King (1995) was delayed for a whole year while “the [King] estate’s literary agent reviewed the manuscript for copyright violations.” Moreover, “I thought their demands for payment for quotations in a serious study of King were excessive.” So reportedly were the fees charged Julian Bond for reprinting four documents in his 824-page textbook on civil rights. “The book costs 65 bucks, and the publisher told me those documents put the price up 10 or 15 dollars a book. . . . I was prepared to pay something. It just seemed to me an unreasonable charge.” Philip Jones of IPM agreed, saying the fees charged Bond, in a deal struck before the King family had hired IPM, were indeed exorbitant. Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of King, was even more candid. As he reportedly told the Daily Report of Fulton County, Georgia, scholarship “would grind to a halt” if the King family’s approach to intellectual property rights became accepted practice.

Mr. Branch is right: by delaying publishing projects with excessive red tape, or by derailing them altogether with exorbitant fees, the King estate can in effect stymie scholarship and censor history by controlling who receives permission to comment on King and his work. This danger was not lost on David Garrow, a frequent critic of the King family. As he wrote in the Post:

How will new students of King’s life, especially young people, react to the meaning of a man whose year-2000 image may be heavily colorized—or perhaps bleached—by Time-Warner’s corporate image specialists? . . . Consider the possibility of a scholar whose analyses of King—or anything else—anger or offend the King estate. . . . Could permission to quote from King’s materials be withheld, or the price made high enough to alone block publication?

As a case in point, Garrow highlights the ostensible about-face of Taylor Branch, who after meeting with the King family then “declined to expand” on his previous public criticisms of the King estate. “Branch may or may not have changed his views,” writes Garrow, “but the leverage that IPM’s stance gives the King estate over writers who specialize in King could well inhibit them from speaking out fully and frankly about their concerns regarding the King family, the King Center and the King estate.”

Of course, what is overlooked in all of this is the irony: the King estate now enforces copyrights and demands exorbitant royalties on work which King often stole in the first place. In a just world, the royalties would go to the estates of Jack Boozer, Archibald Carey, Paul Tillich, and to the scores of other writers, ministers, scholars, and social activists whose work fell pre’ to King’s “voice merging.” Irony, it seems, is just another of the many things to which we have to be sensitive.