Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a plagiarist?

May 2, 2003

Dear Cecil:

What is the straight dope on Martin Luther King, Jr.? Did he plagiarize most of his writing, including his Ph.D. thesis? Was he a communist? Did he really use donated money for prostitutes? These allegations were brought up on a now defunct Web page supposedly in order "[not] to bring down MLK, Jr." but to "subject him to the same sort of dirt-digging that leaders such as George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and other dead white guys have suffered." The same contentions are cited at christianparty.net/mlktruth.htm, and probably other Web sites. If anyone can shed light on this, oh Master, it is you; please edify us.

"Edifying" is not the first word that comes to mind in this context. However, one must face the facts.

Considering how he was vilified while he was alive, Martin Luther King, Jr. has gotten off easy since his death, despite some embarrassing posthumous revelations. Partly that's because he's been embraced by conservatives, who now point to him as a symbol of moderation and self-reliance, in contrast to the likes of Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton. Still, as you say, certain questions arise.

Was he a communist? No, but the sustained effort by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to portray King as a Bolshevik wasn't purely a product of cold war paranoia. A number of King's associates were former communists, notably New York lawyer Stanley Levison, who had been active in the Communist Party USA as late as 1956. Levison was one of King's most trusted confidants and helped write some of his speeches. King's political views can safely be described as left of center--among other things he vociferously opposed the Vietnam war. But the available evidence suggests he was neither a communist nor unduly influenced by Marxist ideas.

Did he spend donated money on prostitutes? The most sordid charges about MLK's sex life, this one included, come from the FBI and can't necessarily be trusted. But there's no doubt about what one biographer calls King's "compulsive sexual athleticism." King's attitude toward women was chauvinist and often exploitative. In his 1989 autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, King's close friend and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy writes that on the night before he died, King gave a rousing speech, had dinner with a woman afterward and remained with her till 1 AM, then came back to his motel to spend the night with a second woman. In the early morning hours a third woman came looking for King and became angry when she found the bed in the room he shared with Abernathy unoccupied. When King reappeared, he argued with woman #3 and wound up knocking her across the bed. 

In his 1991 memoir, Breaking Barriers, journalist Carl Rowan writes that in 1964 congressman John Rooney told him that he and his congressional committee had heard J. Edgar Hoover play an audiotape of an apparent orgy held in King's Washington hotel suite. Over the sounds of a couple having intercourse in the background, according to Rooney, King could be heard saying to a man identified as Abernathy, "Come on over here, you big black motherfucker, and let me suck your dick." Horrors, King was gay! (Rowan thinks this was just ribald repartee.) In his account of the same episode, civil rights historian Taylor Branch attributes a couple more quotes to King: "I'm fucking for God!" and "I'm not a Negro tonight!" The FBI anonymously sent King (or, according to some accounts, King's wife, Coretta) a tape of compromising material recorded in his hotel rooms. The tape was either accompanied or followed up by a note suggesting that King should commit suicide if he wished to avoid exposure.

Did he plagiarize most of his writings? He plagiarized a lot of them. An investigation conducted by Boston University, where King got his Ph.D. in theology, determined that he had appropriated roughly a third of his doctoral thesis from a dissertation written three years earlier by another graduate student. Curiously, the same faculty member had been "first reader" of both theses, leading some to wonder whether King's faculty advisers at BU were incompetent or just guilty white liberals who gave a promising young black leader a pass. King also "borrowed" portions of many other writings and speeches, including the famous "I have a dream" speech he gave at the 1963 civil rights rally in Washington.

As every reasonable observer has commented, neither King's sexual wanderings nor his scholarly misdeeds detract from his core achievement. By continually publicizing black grievances while putting a palatable, nonviolent face on resistance to jim crow, King paved the way for the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s and a major turnaround in public attitudes about race. But there's no getting around the fact that he was a complex and deeply flawed man. Was he a great American? No argument here. Was he a fraud and a hypocrite? He was that, too.

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