Civil rights leaders and historians Saturday defended the late Martin Luther King Jr.'s place in history despite allegations the slain civil rights leader plagiarized during his academic career.

"It's inevitable with every hero that, as time goes by, people put in proper perspective their humanness and that's what's happening to Dr. King," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the King-founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Dr. King never claimed he was God."The revelations about King's writings, published Friday in The Wall Street Journal and subject of a news conference at Stanford University, were based on the findings of an editorial board headed by Stanford historian and civil rights activist Clayborne Carson.

Divided by his allegiance to King and to uphold the truth, Carson said King, the winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, repeatedly used words and ideas from other scholars in his dissertation and other academic works.

"We found that there was a pattern of appropriation, of textual appropriation," said Carson, 46, and a specialist on black history. "By the strictest definition of plagiarism - that is, any appropriation of words or ideas - there are instances of plagiarism in these papers."

The papers include those written while King was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary and at Boston University, where he earned his doctorate in theology in 1955.

Carson became involved in the King works as a result of being selected by Coretta Scott King in 1985 to head the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, a multivolume collection of her husband's writings.

The findings were presented to the project's advisory board of scholars in October 1989 but Carson, as senior editor, said he decided not to make public any details until the first installment of the collected papers was published. The original date for publication was the end of this year.

King's dissertation, entitled, "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Weiman," appears to borrow many words from a disseration written three years earlier by Jack Boozer, under the same adviser at Boston University.

Boston University said it formed a committee to study the allegations but Carson defended King's reputation.

"His place in history is based on what he did after he left graduate school. His contributions can't be undermined by our new findings," he said.