A chronology of the discovery of King's plagiarism

Most of this information comes from articles collected in Theodore Pappas' book The Martin Luther King Jr. Plagiarism Story (Rockford Institute, Rockford, IL, 1994). I am grateful to the Institute for providing a copy of this out-of-print work.

1984

The Martin Luther King Papers Project is formed

1986

David Garrow, in Bearing the Cross, relates how Ira Zepp, in an unpublished study, found that sections of King's Stride Towards Freedom are verbatim identical to passages from Paul Ramsay's Basic Christian Ethics and Anders Nygren's Eros and Agape. Garrow refrains from using the 'p' word, and his index calls the incident 'ghostwriting'

1986

The King Papers Project receives the first of its over $500,000 of NEH funding

Late 1987

The King Papers project first discovers evidence of King's plagiarism.

October 1989

According to Waldman, King's plagiarism was discussed in the presence of his widow, Coretta Scott King, in an all-day meeting in Atlanta. Mrs. King remained silent through most of the meeting, and has since declined to answer queries about her husband's plagiarism. The board decides to publish King's papers with footnotes fully detailing the plagiarism, and to separately publish an article outlining its extent.

December 3, 1989

Frank Johnson, in the British Sunday Telegraph , reveals that Ralph Luker, associate editor of the King Papers Project, has informed him that King had borrowed heavily from the thesis of Jack Boozer, fellow Boston University theology student and later Professor of Religion at Emory. Luker temporizes, promising that full facts will be available in nine months. Claiborne Carson, director of the Project, says when asked about the charge of plagiarism "It's really not true...what we're talking about is the question of whether there was an adequate citation of all sources".

Major American newspapers totally ignore the article.

January 22, 1990

The Liberty Lobby's The Spotlight prints a front-page story on King's plagiarized thesis, based on the Sunday Telegraph column.

March 1 1990

According to Babington, King's plagiarism is widely discussed at the Southern Intellectual History Circle, meeting at Chapel Hill. Luker, who attended, says the story was 'academic cocktail-party gossip' at the time. UNC sociologist John Shelton Reed hears the story, and cites it in a gossip column for Chronicles , the magazine of the Rockford Institute. He later balks at publishing after receiving a stern letter from B.U. acting president Jon Westling.

'early 1990'

According to Babington, Carson's team informs the National Endowment for the Humanities of the plagiarism. NEH decides not to divulge the information.

Spring 1990

Washington Post reporter Dan Balz approaches Carson with questions about the plagiarism, but is misled by Carson, who admits he tried to 'play it down'.

June 1990

According to Waldman, Carson submitted an article to Journal of American History, but it was rejected because Carson was unwilling to 'take a firm stand' on the question of whether King's thesis was plagiarized.

September 1990

Thomas Fleming writes in the conservative magazine Chronicles that King's doctorate should be regarded as a courtesy title, since it had been recently revealed that he had plagiarized his dissertation.

October 5 1990

Boston University President Jon Westling sends a letter to Chronicles (published in the January 1991 issue) denying Fleming's charge. Westling, in an apparent bare-faced lie, says that King's dissertation has been 'scrupulously examined and reexamined by scholars', and that 'not a single instance of plagiarism of any sort has been identified....not a single reader has ever found any nonattributed or misattributed quotations, misleading paraphrases, or thoughts borrowed without due scholarly reference in any of its 343 pages'.

Fall 1990

Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Waldman calls Carson. Carson tries stonewalling him, but Waldman informs Carson he has a copy of Jack Boozer's dissertation, from which King stole heavily. Carson decides the game is up, and agrees to cooperate with Waldman in breaking the story.

November 9, 1990

Peter Waldman, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, 'breaks' the story in the American mass media. The article quotes Claiborne Carson finally admitting King's plagiarism. The article soft-pedals King's 'borrowings', and cites Keith Miller's thesis that King's 'voice merging' stems from the oral traditions of the black church. The article says that 'most of King's papers had many original thoughts', but often 'borrowed without citing'. According to Waldman, Carson has asked staff members to refrain from use of the 'p'-word around the office.

November 10 1990

Other major American newspapers followed the WSJ with front-page stories on the plagiarism

January 1991

Theodore Pappas, in a article in Chronicles written before the WSJ article, compares sections of King's thesis in detail with that of Jack Boozer, showing for the first time the enormous extent of King's plagiarism.

January 1991

Charles Babington in the New Republic reveals how several American newspapers (Washington Post, New York Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New Republic) had the story since at least Spring 1990), but either out of ineptitude or political correctness did nothing with it.

September 1991

A Boston University committee reports that while 45% of the first half and 21% of the second half of King's thesis was plagiarized, it was still an original contribution to scholarship, and his degree should not be revoked. The true extent of King's plagiarism is much greater, and comparing his thesis with its sources, one can only conclude that BU's conclusion was purely political and academically dishonest.