The American Historical Association defines plagiarism “as the appropriation of ‘the exact wording of another author without attribution,’ and the borrowing of ‘distinctive and significant research findings or interpretations’ without proper citation.” Claudine Gay resigned the presidency of Harvard University recently in large part when her very limited scholarly corpus came under scrutiny for the transgression by scholars as well as conservative critics. In “Plagiarizing while Black” in the January 15th issue of The American Mind, Alexander Riley, Senior Fellow, The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), compares Professor Gay’s plagiarism with that of a more celebrated case: Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Riley also serves as professor of sociology at Bucknell University. One way of looking at plagiarism is fraud on the scholarly community of which Bucknell and all other universities are a part. The 1955 dissertation that earned King a doctorate at Boston University in theology contains the plagiarism pervasively as was pointed out in the London Daily Telegraph at the end of 1989, more than twenty years after King’s death.  His plagiarism, at that time and since, has received scant attention from the US press.

Theodore Pappas, who went on to become executive editor of Encyclopedia Britannica in 1998, published an article about King’s plagiarism seven years previously in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Boston University roundly criticized Pappas’s assertion in a letter sent to Chronicles. Pappas rejoined by publishing a book, Plagiarism and the Culture War: The Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Other Prominent Americans (1994).  The AHI’s own Eugene Genovese wrote an introduction to Pappas’s later edition published in 1998.

Clayborne Carson, a black historian at Stanford University who edited the Martin Luther King Papers Project since 1985, also discovered that King’s plagiarism proved extensive. The King Papers Project tasked him with writing an essay about his findings.  The Journal of American History, the flagship journal of the Organization of American Historians, rejected it.  As Martin Luther King reached iconic status in the US, black scholars, progressives, and even some conservative commentators did “mental acrobatics to exonerate King” from his wrongdoing.

Claudine Gay’s plagiarism and her attempts to distract attention from it by playing the race card reminds us of “how much farther we have fallen.”