BU Alumni Magazine’s Ignoring MLK’s Plagiarism Now Relevant Given Accusations Against Harvard President Gay
12/13/2023
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The plagiarism accusations against Harvard University President Claudine Gay occasion another look at the fall issue of Bostonia, the alumni magazine of Boston University, which recently hired a black woman president. Obsessed With All Things Black, the magazine included in the latest issue an excerpt of a new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. who received a doctorate in theology at BU with a plagiarized thesis and other work [“I’m Going to Kill Jim Crow,” excerpt from Jonthan Eig’s King: A Life, November 16, 2023]. Yet neither the introduction to the excerpt nor the excerpt itself mentions King’s literary larceny.

In 1991, a panel at BU conceded that King plagiarized large sections of his doctoral thesis and other academic work, which would have meant expulsion at the time he wrote, yet the university did not revoke the doctorate he received in 1955.

Whether Eig included King’s plagiarism scandal in his book, Bostonia should have at least included a note about it in the introduction because King received not only the doctorate but also an honorary degree from BU in 1959. The doctorate, then, comes with an asterisk for any honest scholar or journalist. Yet all we get from Bostonia is the laudatory introduction, then the excerpt, which offers jejune details about the future rape accessory’s days in Boston [The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King, by David Garrow, Standpoint, June 2019].

Let’s recall that the plagiarism was no minor matter. It wasn’t as if King stole one or two lines from a published source just once. King robbed others the way Jesse James robbed banks … except the banks knew they were victims. “[T]he plagiarism in his dissertation seemed to be, by then, the product of his long established practice,” wrote the late liberal history professor Ralph Luker, who helped uncover King’s academic crimes:

He worked the authorities’ words into a seamless construct of his own creation and told his professors almost exactly what they, themselves, believed about a subject. To be candid, aren’t we most likely to reward students with good grades when they say what we believe, in our heart of hearts, about a subject? What was lacking in King’s academic work was the other thing which we commonly ask of students: originality of thought. …

[H]e was being patronized by his liberal, white professors. That clearly was not the case when his undergraduate teachers at Morehouse evaluated his work. But when he went to predominantly white institutions in the North, King received extraordinarily high grades for academic work which was not only often heavily plagiarized, but was otherwise quite unexceptional. There’s probably no way to prove that King was being patronized, but I think that, in the context of the time, the temptation to over-reward a charming young African American student who told his liberal white professors in the North almost exactly what he knew they already deeply believed about a subject was simply overwhelming.

The tensions between valuing knowing what the authorities have said about a subject and producing a work of original thought came to a head in King’s dissertation. ”A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman” is a sort of workman-like product, plagued with plagiarism [emphasis added].

[On Martin Luther King’s Plagiarism, by Cliopatria, History News Network, December 21, 2004]

Telling Leftist theologians what they wanted to hear, by the way, might explain why, in his academic work, King denied the elemental truths of the Christian faith such as Jesus Christ’s Divinity, virgin birth, and resurrection. King was an ordained Baptist minister when he wrote those things.

Anyway, here we are, 30 years after King was proven to have cheated to get his doctorate. And we read not a word of it in the alumni magazine of the university that granted him the degree. 

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