Of course it matters that Martin Luther King Jr. appears to have plagiarized important sections of his doctoral dissertation. It won't change (though it may be used to justify) the opinions of those who never thought him worthy of adulation. It won't make him less of a hero (though it will certainly render him more human) to his legions of admirers.
But it matters -- matters a great deal -- and those who say otherwise may be yielding to wishful thinking. As a certified King admirer, I was among those whose first reaction to the revelation of his probable academic cheating was to insist that it was no big deal. My admiration, I told myself, was based not on his scholarship but on his leadership of perhaps the most important social movement in the history of this country and on the eloquence of his words and actions, which moved America to rethink its racial attitudes, change its laws and refocus its fundamental dream.
King's most important contribution, I reminded myself, was his gift of courage: the courage to resist -- and to inspire countless others to resist -- the Jim Crow laws that had seemed a permanent way of life in the Deep South; the courage to stand up (or to go limp in passive resistance) against threats of jail, economic reprisal and physical harm; and the courage to look his own impending death in the eye and still go forward with his campaign for racial justice.
I still admire him for that. But I also admired King the scholar, a man to whom philosophical ideas and political action seemed inseparable, a man who was as willing to borrow the seminal ideas of the great theologians as to appropriate the nonviolent techniques of a Gandhi. I treasured his courage, but I also treasured the ideas that lay behind the courage and the words that gave it force. I have used his example to impress on young people the value of scholarship and to tell them (and myself) that intellectual integrity is no less valuable than physical courage.
So it cannot be inconsequential that his scholarship and his intellectual integrity are now called into question.
In one area, at least, my hero has let me down, and it makes me sad.
It isn't that I had thought King perfect or that I joined those who willfully overlooked his shortcomings -- or who contended that anyone else should. His storied fondness for women -- marital cheating -- did not, for me, detract from either his courage or his moral leadership on the racial front. (My objection to the "womanizing" revelations of his friend and handpicked successor, the late Ralph David Abernathy, was not that I thought King's human weaknesses should be concealed but that they should not be exploited by someone King himself had let so completely inside and so completely trusted.)
The newest revelations are different, because they call into question not King's weaknesses but his strengths. Claybourne Carson, the Stanford University researcher handpicked by King's widow to head the Martin Luther King Jr. Paper Project, and a committed admirer of King, has been forced to acknowledge that "several" of the martyr's papers, as well as his dissertation, "contain numerous appropriated passages that can be defined as plagiarism."
Carson is due enormous credit for not letting his admiration get in the way of his own intellectual integrity. When a graduate student working for Carson found sections of King's work had been taken virtually verbatim from other sources, with neither quotation marks nor footnotes, Carson followed the appalling evidence to its bitter end. More bitter yet is the fact that the revelation comes just after the defeat of an Arizona bill to make King's birthday an official holiday. It will be used as evidence that the Arizona voters were right.
They weren't. The importance of the proposal was that it honored America's foremost black leader. It was not based on King's reputation as a scholar but on the undeniable fact of his leadership. And those who voted against it would not have voted differently if Carson's scholars had disclosed that the theologian Paul Tillich had stolen from King's work rather than the other way around. Evidence after the fact does not alter the racism implicit in what happened in Arizona.
But I cannot say it doesn't matter. King the scholar has been diminished, even if King the leader stands as tall as ever. I suppose we can draw lessons from the revelations -- just as we draw lessons from the discovery that other people we admire turn out to have their feet of clay. We need to understand that our heroes are, after all, human beings.
But that doesn't alter my sadness that for now, and in one area of his still-astounding career, my hero let me down.