The Greatest Sin of MLK

Martin Luther King JrShould kids look up to Martin Luther King Jr as a role model? You might think they should, but that’s just because you are another liberal Frankly Curious reader with no more sense than God gave a donkey — and not one of the smart one, but one who went to school on the little bus. You see, it turns out that King was not a perfect man. You may have heard about extramarital affairs. In addition to this, King was much shorter than Malcolm X. How can you look up to a man who is so short. (Disclosure: Martin Luther King Jr was exactly my height.)

All of that might have been overlooked. But did you know that MLK was a plagiarizer?! Thirty-six years after he got his PhD in systematic theology, a Boston University committee found that, “There is no question 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.” Can you imagine?! The man didn’t properly footnote his dissertation!

It is important at this point to note that it is because students tend to take these kinds of shortcuts that there are dissertation committees. In my experience, dissertations are not given sufficient scrutiny. But there is a good reason for this. Most people are far more interested in whether the new work is important and correct. Most of any given dissertation is just a retelling of what work has gone before. And in this case, the same committee that found that King had plagiarized also found that his dissertation made an important contribution to scholarship, which is the only thing that matters.

There is little doubt that King’s dissertation has been picked over more than almost anyone’s in history. The reason for this is doubtless good and bad. There are those who want to diminish him, because let’s face it: there are a lot of people who still don’t think African Americans should vote. But on the other hand, there are many who just want to know who the great man was.

And now we know: Martin Luther King Jr was a man, like so many others. But he was also a man who did great things. And his worst doesn’t even rise to the level of my worst. And it is in the noise compared to men like Ronald Reagan. So yes: children should admire Martin Luther King Jr. We all should. We should admire him for the great things he did. And the fact that he was a little lose with his dissertation citations and his marriage vows doesn’t mean a thing.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “The Greatest Sin of MLK

  1. He was essentially our first (only?) Black president. He had that kind of influence. People who find themselves with an enormous amount of influence often become a little deranged. To MLK’s credit, he only became a teensy bit deranged (and the student dissertation stuff doesn’t matter at all.) His “greatest sin” was probably advocating for the poor and against the war, sins so heinous they are basically forgotten now.

    I’d say his largest derangement was a shocking disregard for his own physical security. Gandhi had some of that, too. If these men hadn’t been so motivated by their spiritual convictions, they probably wouldn’t have accomplished as much and worked as hard — yet their religious convictions contributed, a little, to their fearlessness at the prospect of assassination. It would have been useful for the rest of us to have King around another 30 years. Even racists grudgingly respected him (like my dad.) King taking on Reagan might have been really helpful.

    I’m torn on the oft-mentioned Spielberg MLK film. I imagine such a film would dramatize the strategies and challenges of the civil-rights movement, and as such it would be a great thing to show kids. But . . . Spielberg.

    • Well put. I know there were some people around MLK who were worried about his safety. But I also think part of his disregard is just humility: not thinking that he was so important that people would try to kill him. That would be cognitive dissonance, of course.

      It’s interesting, I was working on an article about Thomas Paine and I was reminded of Glenn Beck and his “Common Sense.” What hubris! Paine was one of the greatest polemicist of all time, and ranter Beck presumes to link himself with the great man?! Unbelievable.

      As for the film, well, it might be good. I thought he did a fine job with Lincoln. Schindler’s List was great, of course. And I think Amistad is a terribly underrated film. It will depend upon the script. I’d prefer a documentary, myself. But as you said: for the kids.

      • “Lincoln” is a good example of what bugs me about Speilberg’s self-appointed role as America’s Historian. It had some things I really liked, and I would have enjoyed the hell out of it as a 100-minute, “12 Angry Men”-style thing focused on Lincoln’s political maneuvering (with more Tommy Lee Jones!) But it had to be this big, sweeping epic which, for me, lost its focus. That’s mostly Kushner’s fault; yet Spielberg falls for this grand-narrative stuff (see “War Horse.” Actually, don’t see “War Horse.”)

        A really sharp MLK documentary would be ideal; or a drama by the best Black director nobody knows about, Carl Franklin (currently doing time on the silly “House Of Cards” show, which is beneath him.)

        I remember seeing “Saving Private Ryan” in the theater, and after half an hour of blood and gore, some American troops overtake a German bunker. The Germans come out with their hands up. The Americans mow them down. The theater was huge, filled with 1000 people, and maybe two people shouted “yeah!” The rest of us were appalled. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant depiction of how war atrocities happen. Soldiers are shoved into these horrific situations and of course they become insane.

        I read later that Spielberg/Hanks meant that moment to be a little rousing patriotic bit. As in, we’ve shown a ton of Americans dying, now let’s give the audience some payback. They were stunned when preview audiences reacted negatively to the killing of the Germans trying to surrender.

        That’s Spielberg. He has talent and good taste but not much of a brain. (Seriously, a script by Robert Rodat? That guy is one of the most disturbed psychos ever to write major nation pictures.) Hopefully if the MLK film ever gets made it will, as you say, have a good script. Also, Spielberg is terrific with actors, so I’d be interested to see who got the main roles. And if Bayard Rustin isn’t a major character, then whoever writes it will have missed something pretty awesome.

        • I didn’t like Saving Private Ryan at all. I never got it. But what I most remember was a German soldier on fire and one of the American soldiers telling people not to shoot and to allow him to burn to death. I was repulsed. At the same time, that’s what war does to us.

          Spielberg is a great director, but he has his problems. There is no question of that. In general, I don’t like biopics anyway.

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