Scholars assembling a multi-volume work on the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. have found evidence that, in his doctoral dissertation and some other student essays, the slain civil rights leader borrowed heavily from the works of others and in some cases committed what some scholars would call "plagiarism," the director of the project, Claybourne Carson, said yesterday.
Jon Westling, the acting president of Boston University, where King did his doctoral work in the 1950s, announced that he had assembled a board of scholars from inside and outside the university to investigate the charges. "It is clear that these merit close scrutiny," Westling said in a statement issued by the university.
The findings, which were revealed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, grew out of extensive and often painful research by the staff of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, which was started in 1984 at the urging of his widow, Coretta Scott King.
A spokesman for Mrs. King said yesterday she would have no immediate reaction.
In 1988, researchers at the project discovered similarities between passages in King's dissertation -- "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman" -- and the works of other scholars. Carson said yesterday he originally had sought simply to determine how much King had been influenced by others.
"What became clear was, as students began to check these sources with respect to specific passages that may have influenced King, the similarities between the passages . . . and King's own words," Carson said. "It's clear that it's substantial -- substantial numbers of entire sentences and sometimes larger passages that are taken verbatim."
In a detailed statement issued yesterday by the King Papers Project, which is based at Stanford University, Carson said the project staff could not determine whether King actually violated existing academic standards on plagiarism.
"The available documentary evidence does not provide a definitive answer," the statement said. "Some of the appropriations in King's dissertation clearly do not follow" the guidelines of the university at the time. "Moreover, several academic papers, as well as the dissertation, contain numerous passages that meet a strict definition of plagiarism -- any unacknowledged appropriation of words or ideas."
The evidence, which the King Papers Project was preparing to release next year as part of the first volumes of the series, has had a numbing effect on project staff members and on King scholars, many of whom have been familiar with the controversy for many months.
David Garrow, author of a book about King entitled "Bearing the Cross," said when he first was sent the material a year ago, "it took a day . . . for it to register. . . . It just didn't compute."
Once it sank in, Garrow said, "It was very stunning, very depressing."
Louise Cook, an archivist who helped initiate the papers project and who since has moved to the Carter Center in Atlanta, said yesterday, "Naturally I was very disappointed. I'd like to know the reasons why there was such a violation of academic standards and why it wasn't caught at Boston University by his academic advisers."
The findings of the King Papers Project are not the first or only evidence that King borrowed heavily from the works of others. An Arizona State University professor, Keith D. Miller, is working on a book that examines King's use of language in his later life.
In an article published last January in the PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, Miller found that King relied heavily on the works of seven writers or theologians in a chapter of King's book "Stride Toward Freedom."
"With respect to King's language during his public career, he did absolutely nothing wrong," Miller said yesterday. "He was trained in the black folk pulpit, which is an oral tradition. In this tradition, language was seen as common treasure, not private property. His sense of language comes out of that tradition, not out of his academic training."
Ralph Luker, one of the editors of the project, said he believed the new revelations would not have a lasting effect on the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
"In the long run, the public in general is likely to conclude that our findings are of marginal significance, because it is not in the academic intellectual arena that Dr. King made his largest contribution in American history," he said.
Ralph A. Hill, a University of California at Los Angeles professor and a member of the advisory board for the King Papers Project, said the findings show King to be human. "He went on to become . . . an extraordinary human leader whose principal means of communication was via the spoken word, not the written word," he said. "That's what matters. . . . It certainly was not the ethical thing to do, and that's what makes him really very human."
One of King's former professors came to his defense yesterday. Kenneth L. Smith, who taught King during his graduate years at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, said he had read the dissertation. "I see no evidence of plagiarism there whatsoever," he said.
King's dissertation was approved by a committee headed by L. Harold DeWolf, who later praised King as a diligent student, according to Carson's statement yesterday.
The King Papers Project found that King not only made extensive use of Tillich's words but also "appropriated passages" from an earlier doctoral dissertation on Tillich.
"King used Tillich's words without explicit attribution," Carson's statement said. "Moreover, King's attribution practices did not indicate the full extent of his reliance on other scholars who wrote about Tillich."
An example of the similarities between King's words and Tillich's was included in the statement Stanford issued yesterday.
In his work, King wrote at one point: "The third ontological polarity which Tillich discusses is that of freedom and destiny. Here the description of the basic ontological structure and its elements reaches both its fulfillment and its turning point. Ordinarily one thinks of necessity as the correlate of freedom. However, necessity is a category and not an element. Its contrast is possiblity, not freedom."
In one of his own works, Tillich wrote as follows: "The third ontological polarity is that of freedom and destiny, in which the description of the basis ontological structure and its elements reaches both its fulfillment and its turning point. . . . Ordinarily one speaks of freedom and necessity. However, necessity is a category and not an element. Its contrast is possibility, not freedom."
S. Paul Schilling, one of two professors at Boston University to act as readers for King's dissertation, said yesterday he "deeply regrets" the new findings but that he still believes the work showed originality and still "is deserving of recognition." He said he opposes any moves to revoke King's degree.
He said King had written the dissertation in 1954-55 while serving in his first year as pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Saying King was "careless" in his scholarship, Schilling, who is retired and lives in Gaithersburg, added, "I would certainly not accuse him of dishonesty."
Carson said that the denseness of Tillich's writing often created a barrier to easy paraphrasing, and said the use of his words is "not that unusual among scholars."
"Certainly," he said yesterday, "there was anguish . . . coming to terms with another part of King that we didn't know anything about. . . . We wish we had this feeling of elation that comes from scholarly discovery, but I can assure you that no one's feeling elated today." Special correspondent Christopher B. Daly in Boston and researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.