The recent charges of plagiarism against Martin Luther King seem to be exaggerated.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a King protege, dismissed the charges, saying "Some people deal with his footnotes, while I will follow his footprints that he made in the sands of time."I wonder if Jackson borrowed any of those words?
Jackson also thinks that, like many black preachers, King relied heavily on "the oral tradition." He said that King wrote his dissertation "not at Boston University but in a war zone of civil rights demonstrations, bombings and protest marches."
National columnists are divided over the issue. Conservative Pat Buchanan condemns King as a man of "dubious moral character" who "expropriated other men's words and ideas as liberally as he would later expropriate other men's wives." Buchanan supports the right of the state of Arizona to refuse to institute a Martin Luther King holiday in spite of the potential loss of the 1993 Super Bowl.
More liberal columnist Ellen Goodman acknowledges that King was guilty of both promiscuity and plagiarism but quotes King in one of his speeches, saying, "I am a sinner like all of God's children, but I want to be a good man and I want to hear a voice saying me to one day, `I take you in and I bless you because you tried.' " Goodman credits King with trying - and changing the world in which we live.
Perhaps even more cogent to the case is the King statement that he wanted to live in a nation where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." It would seem that King is now being judged on the basis of his character.
National columnists have almost universally assumed the correctness of the plagiarism charge. Even David Garrow, a King biographer, was shocked by the revelations and said that "Using King as an inspirational symbol for children or teenagers is much, much more difficult now."
But Clayborne Carson, the Stanford University professor who is compiling the civil rights leader's papers and who discovered the problem, sees the issue very differently. He said that in King's doctoral dissertation at Boston University and other writings, there "were numerous passages that were either direct quotes or almost direct quotes that were neither in quotation marks nor did they cite the source."
On the other hand, says Carson, King's actions were "not flagrant" because "some attribution was located elsewhere in the piece of writing indicating what source he was using."
The issue, then, is not failure to attribute authorship of a quotation, but failure to attribute it properly.
According to Carson, King would identify the source in the bibliography, and sometimes in the text of what he was writing "right up front. But later, when he'd actually use a passage, he didn't cite that."
This is a clear violation of accepted academic rules of citation, and Boston University is currently reviewing the findings. The worst that could happen is that the university could strip King of his doctorate posthumously. Carson himself says that if he had been one of King's teachers, he would have called him in and given him a "stern lecture."
He also thinks that there would likely have been a hearing and King probably would have been reprimanded and told to be more careful.
It is clear that King was insecure and thought himself unworthy. Once he said, "There is a schizophrenia . . . within all of us. There are times that all of us knows somehow there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us."
It does not appear that King was guilty of plagiarism as I understand the term. He undoubtedly violated the rules of academic propriety and should have been reprimanded. But he does not appear to have purposefully represented someone else's ideas as his own.
That, after all, is the principle at stake in this argument.
When I listen to the recording of King's "I have a dream" speech, I still hear a moving orator who touched souls. Regardless of personal flaws, his legacy was real.