During the 1980s, archivists associated with The Martin Luther King Papers Project uncovered evidence that the dissertation King prepared for his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University, "A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman," was plagiarized, and the story broke in the national media in 1990. King included in his dissertation a good deal of material taken verbatim from a variety of other sources without proper attribution (or any attribution at all), an act which constitutes plagiarism by ordinary academic standards.
The Martin Luther King Papers Project addressed the issue in Volume II of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and reproduced a statement thereform in the FAQ on their web site):
The readers of King's dissertation, L. Harold DeWolf and S. Paul Schilling, a professor of systematic theology who had recently arrived at Boston University, failed to notice King's problematic use of sources. After reading a draft of the dissertation, DeWolf criticized him for failing to make explicit "presuppositions and norms employed in the critical evaluation," but his comments were largely positive. He commended King for his handling of a "difficult" topic "with broad learning, impressive ability and convincing mastery of the works immediately involved." Schilling found two problems with King's citation practices while reading the draft, but dismissed these as anomalous and praised the dissertation in his Second Reader's report ...
As was true of King's other academic papers, the plagiaries in his dissertation escaped detection in his lifetime. His professors at Boston, like those at Crozer, saw King as an earnest and even gifted student who presented consistent, though evolving, theological identity in his essays, exams and classroom comments ... Although the extent of King's plagiaries suggest he knew that he was at least skirting academic norms, the extant documents offer no direct evidence in this matter. Thus he may have simply become convinced, on the basis of his grades at Crozer and Boston, that his papers were sufficiently competent to withstand critical scrutiny. Moreover, King's actions during his early adulthood indicate that he increasingly saw himself as a preacher appropriating theological scholarship rather than as an academic producing such scholarship ...
In 1991 a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation but did not recommend the revocation of his degree:
A committee of scholars at Boston University concluded yesterday that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation, completed there in the 1950s.
BU provost Jon Westling accepted the panel's recommendation that a letter be attached to King's dissertation in the university library, noting that numerous passages lacked appropriate quotations and citations of sources. The letter was placed in the archives yesterday afternoon, a BU spokesman said.
Westling also accepted the committee's statement that "no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King's doctoral degree from Boston University" and the assertion that despite its flaws, the dissertation "makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship."
The investigatory committee, comprising three professors in the BU School of Theology and one from American University, was appointed by Westling last November after researchers at Stanford said they had discovered numerous instances of plagiarism in King's work as a graduate student.
While there was general agreement that King acted improperly, Clayborne Carson, head of the King Papers Project at Stanford where the plagiarism initially was uncovered, noted that King made no effort to conceal what he was doing, providing grounds for a belief that King was not willfully engaged in wrongdoing.
Westling said in a prepared statement yesterday that it was "impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources. The committee's findings, although important from the point of view of historical accuracy, do not affect Dr. King's greatness, not do they change the fact that Dr. King made an unequalled contribution to the cause of justice and equal rights in this nation."
John H. Cartwright, a member of the committee and Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Social Ethics at BU, said the committee had examined King's dissertation independently of the King Papers Project and "we did find serious improprieties."
The chair Cartwright occupies was created by the Boston University trustees after King's assassination. Cartwright was entering BU as a seminary student when King was finishing his doctorate.
"We had many of the same professors, we worked in the same atmosphere during our graduate studies," Cartwright said, and "under no circumstances would the atmosphere under which he did his work condone what Dr. King did. It's incredible. He was not unaware of the correct procedure. This wasn't just done out of ignorance."
The committee found that King "is responsible for knowingly misappropriating the borrowed materials that he failed to cite or to cite adequately." It found a pattern of appropriation of uncited material "that is a straightforward breach of academic norms and that constitutes plagiarism as commonly understood."
The letter to be attached to King's dissertation, Cartwright pointed out, "indicates there are serious improprieties and points readers to sources where they can find chapter and verse."
The committee found no grounds for charges raised last year that King drew his organization and chapter headings from another person's dissertation. The plagiarism, the panel said, was of passages from the works of philosophers whose concepts of God King was comparing in his work. The dissertation is titled "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman."
The committee also found no evidence that the professors reviewing King's dissertation had a double standard for African-American students and examined their work less critically than the work of whites. "Standards were applied with equal strictness to black as well as to white students," the panel concluded. "Black as well as white students failed out of the program."
Even though faculty supervision of King's work "failed to detect the large number of uncited borrowings that breached academic norms," the committee also found, the examining professors were not negligent "according to normal standards of supervision."
What this sounds to me is that the original reviewers admitted that certain part of King's dissertation were plagiarized, but it wasn't sufficient reason to revoke his PhD on the grounds of certain technicalities. Could one of those technicalities be that most Americans now consider him a martyr and they didn't want to deal with accusations of racism if they did revoke his degree? I wouldn't be at all surprised.
The only other thing I'll say is that in all honesty I know King was no idiot. He probably COULD have written his dissertation without plagiarizing anything if he spent more time studying, doing proper research, and doing his own writing rather than working in the civil rights movement. No one, not King nor anyone else should get a free pass in the classroom because he is spending too much time doing "noble" work regardless of what that work is and who's doing it. That includes Aryans working for National Socialism. In school you do your own work or you don't pass - NO EXCEPTIONS!
BTW, I waited until today to post this rather than posting it on MLK Day deliberately. I have a personal policy of not calling attention to MLK Day on the actual day. I prefer to treat it as any ordinary Monday (which it is to me) and reserve any comments about it until after. Besides, I don't want to seem like I'm full of sour grapes and trying to rain on someone else's parade just because I don't like it.