Dr. King’s King’s Pass

King sculpture

Maybe everyone knew this, but I sure didn’t. Or maybe most people didn’t know this because we aren’t supposed to know it.

The story came to my attention while discussing this post, about the title “Dr.” being used in dubious circumstances. I was looking at the degrees of other famous figures knows as “Doctor”—Dr. Ruth (like Jill Biden, just a doctorate in education, nothing medical) , Dr. Joyce Brothers (a PhD in psychology), Dr. Phil (once a medical doctor, but he lost his license), Dr. Laura (a degree in…physiology???) and others. Then a commenter mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., who was frequently and still is frequently referred to as “Dr. King.” The civil rights icon had a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University (my Methodist minister father-in-law had a doctorate in theology from Harvard, and it never occurred to me that he was a “doctor,” nor did he ever suggest that anyone address him as such), but that’s only half the story.

I discovered this, from 1991:

A committee of scholars appointed by Boston University concluded today that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized passages in his dissertation for a doctoral degree at the university 36 years ago.”There is no question,” the committee said in a report to the university’s provost, “but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation.

“Despite its finding, the committee said that “no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King’s doctoral degree,” an action that the panel said would serve no purpose.But the committee did recommend that a letter stating its finding be placed with the official copy of Dr. King’s dissertation in the university’s library.The four-member committee was appointed by the university a year ago to determine whether plagiarism charges against Dr. King that had recently surfaced were in fact true. Today the university’s provost, Jon Westling, accepted the committee’s recommendations and said its members had “conducted the investigation with scholarly thoroughness, scrupulous attention to detail and a determination not to be influenced by non-scholarly consideration.

“The dissertation at issue is “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Dr. King wrote it in 1955 as part of his requirements for a doctor of philosophy degree, which he subsequently received from the university’s Division of Religious and Theological Studies.

What did they mean, “it would serve no purpose”? How about the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the university and its doctorate program? Plagiarism on a dissertation would mandate forfeiting the degree under normal circumstances, and I’m not aware of a statute of limitations on academic fraud. The problem is compounded by the fact that King encouraged followers and the media to call him “Dr. King,” and he knew the truth about his degree.

Quite apart from that, the university not taking action when it is determined that a graduate’s degree was dishonestly acquired is especially problematical when the recipient was an important historical and cultural figure.The public has a right to know who they are honoring, following and idolizing. Rationalization #11, The Kings Pass should have no limits on its prohibition.

As we have seen in other areas, Martin Luther King is, like Thomas Jefferson, a prime example of a man whose contributions to society were accompanied by a very flawed character.

Do let me know when anyone starts advocating the tearing down of his memorials and statues, or renaming buildings and streets honoring “Dr.” King.

11 thoughts on “Dr. King’s King’s Pass

  1. There is some delicious irony that he plagiarized parts of his theology dissertation while at Boston University, a university affiliated with the United Methodist Church. I get that the conclusion is King failed to document or give proper attribution to source materials but, really, is it that hard?


  2. So this has been knocking around for 29 years and no one’s said a word about it? The man was provably an adulterer and a fraud, yet the black community treats him like God. Yet historical figures much more significant than him get cancelled. I guess it really is all about the color of your face or what is or isn’t between your legs.

  3. Oh, come now, you know that, on the list of sins that require toppling of statues, plagiarism is way down at the bottom. After all, if a known plagiarist can be elected President…

  4. Revoking the degree of a dead man who lacks the opportunity to respond.

    They may be convinced of plagiarism, but, with no due process, why should I be?

    A letter inserted with the official copy seems adequate.


      • It is res ipsa loquitur if it is actually plagiarism. If it is not plagiarism, it is not.

        I received a Master’s Degree in Philosophy in the 90’s. I went to study with Roger Sullivan. He wrote a fairly thorough commentary on Kant’s moral system.

        I proposed a thesis on Kant’s Anthropology and his political essays. I finished a draft of my thesis in the spring. He told me it was weak and needed a new structure to flesh out my argument.

        I worked diligently for 4-5 months so I could finish in time to leave for Law School. When I finished, he wrote me a letter. He said that he was impressed with my thesis. He said he did not believe I could support my thesis but agreed that I succeeded. He said it would form the basis for a good Doctoral Dissertation.

        In person, he asked me directly whether I plagiarized someone else’s thesis. My response was that Kant would say I should take offense to the very question, but, coming from him, I took the accusation as a compliment. He response was something to the effect of, “would he have?” Then, satisfied with my answer, suggested that I not share my thesis with others, as other academics might take my ideas for themselves.

        The very question is whether King plagiarized in the first place. I know about this topic only what I have read in this post. Sloppy citations do not necessarily amount to plagiarism. I know only that an accusation has been made and that the accused has no ability to defend himself.


        • “There is no question,” the committee said in a report to the university’s provost, “but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation

          If a special commission studied the issue, given how much they must have wanted to find otherwise, why wouldn’t that be sufficient proof?

            • I think it’s a variation on the Underwood Maneuver, which is saying “that’s in the past (so let’s forget it and move forward).” What we have here is the protection of the legend. Certain beliefs we hold dear and certain people we hold dear are viewed as too important to disturb, because to do so would take out the prop that brings the house, or a good part of it, down. Families don’t want the memories of their departed members sullied, even if there is a truth involved. An Irishman doesn’t want to hear that Michael Collins was objectively a terrorist. An Italian doesn’t want to hear that Columbus wasn’t so great to the locals. A Bostonian doesn’t want to hear about the things the Kennedys did. Black people have pinned a lot of their hopes and morals on MLK. He was the charismatic preacher who wanted to build bridges and unite all Americans of all colors, who never turned to violence himself, but was cut down by the bullet of a hateful racist, because the darkness couldn’t stand the light growing and had to snuff it out. He was all that was the best in their people, and he’s come to be a symbol, just like Columbus for the Italians and St. Patrick for the Irish.

              Take him away and who takes his place? Malcolm X? Amiri Baraka the elder? Nah, both were a little too inclined to violence and a little too scary. Booker T. Washington? Nah, he was too much of a concession-maker. Fredrick Douglass? Harriet Tubman? Too long ago. Nope, he needs to stay, his statues need to stay, and his day needs to stay on the calendar, his people need him, and if it became generally known that he was not only an adulterer (while preaching that his people didn’t always think about sex) but that he was walking around flashing credentials he didn’t earn, because there was outright fraud in the earning (while preaching honesty and honest advancement), there would be no way around the conclusion that he was a hypocrite. All those posters, testimonials, naming of this and that, statues, and concerts to “sing in praise of King” would look hypocritical because they’d be celebrating someone who was in fact a hypocrite.

              The most ironic thing about this is that a lot of the people who are saying Columbus, Washington, etc. have got to go are the same folks who would lay down their lives, or take someone else’s, to protect MLK’s legacy and legend. I’m sure some of them are true believers in the MLK legend, but I’m sure a lot of them, probably including a lot of the organizers, are cynical culture warriors who see a useful symbol for pushing an agenda that will bring them additional power, and still more to be gained by knocking down everyone else’s symbols. So they say let’s not look at this part of the past too closely while we shine a spotlight on others.

              Maybe we could call this variation “Let Sleeping Legends Lie” or “Omar’s Pass (after the poem by Omar Khayyam which says “the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on,” or something to that effect.

              • Hi Steve,
                Thanks for your response. It made me realize that I was not clear enough in my Comment.

                I was specifically responding to the following argumentation of Jack,

                If a special commission studied the issue, given how much they must have wanted to find otherwise, why wouldn’t that be sufficient proof?

                It is about this argumentation that I somehow feel that there is a new, not yet named by Jack, rationalization hidden.

  5. I find myself in agreement with some of the commenters above.

    This isn’t so much a case of “The King’s Pass” as it’s a case of “Print the Legend.”


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