Thursday, October 30, 2008

Beating up on Martin Luther King, Jr. in public

Why is it that so many famous people said or wrote things that they turn out not to have said or written at all? That subject is a blog post in itself. Sometimes when it turns out that someone did say the things they were supposed to have said, it also turns out that someone else said it first. Sometimes we care and sometimes we don’t, often based on how much we like the person who “lifted” someone else's work.

Who knows why politicians and authors use these quotes without giving credit to the ones who thought of it. Maybe they forgot where they heard it. A number of times I have had people quote me to me, and I usually just laugh to myself because why would they do it if they have not forgotten where they heard it. Perhaps we all do the same thing, and, though we’d like to think that we didn’t, the likelihood is that we do.

But chatting with your friends does not require the same discipline as writing a book. Depending on the venue in which you are speaking or writing, there are different rules for plagiarism. For example, when I post here I do my best to say from whom I’m quoting but I don’t do actual footnotes. And, I don’t always report all my sources. I prefer to use a number of sources, so that I’m not just writing a book report and I try and write about things that I know a lot about so that I can keep the fact checking down to a minimum. But, this is a blog, which is something like a cross between an opinion piece and a conversation as far as I’m concerned, and too new to have firm rules. If anything they lean in the direction of no or rare sourcing. So, my own internal rules are that quotes should get attributed as do original ideas (at least I try). Sometimes I’ll list my sources in general, but often I don’t (and, don’t remember where I learned which fact from anyway).

It is the same thing with op-eds or opinion pieces in newspapers or the babble we hear from pundits on television. They don’t bother to tell us where they get their information from for the most part, direct quotes being an exception. Papers know that if they fill up the article with citations, few would read it. A television documentary is much the same. Footnotes are often up there with my favorite part of a book, but, I acknowledge the unusualness of this preference. For most people, it’s just too boring and they don’t even read them.

So, just as an example, why was it a big deal about Joe Biden swiping a little bit of a speech from a British politician when he last ran for president? Well, Biden kind of made it sound like the Brit’s life was his own, and that’s another thing entirely. It was probably overblown, though. It seems like he actually did give the other politician, Neal Kinnock, credit a number of times in earlier speeches. He just neglected, it appears, that once, which, could be an oversight in the heat of the speech. Still, unfortunately for him, presidential candidates get hard scrutiny, particularly from the other side. It has not been deemed such a demerit that it has stopped him from running for VP this time around.

What if Biden, or another speaker, had extensively co-opted someone else’s stuff? Say it was in a speech for which he got a lot of credit. Can we just refer to Picasso who (possibly) said – “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” He may have understood more than the rest of us. But, wouldn’t it be right for the speech maker to tell everyone what his sources were? Wouldn’t it be wrong not to? If Churchill had lifted his “We shall fight on the beaches . . . .” refrain from, say, Kipling (he didn't), it would have been appropriate to let people know, at least by saying –“As the great patriot, Rudyard Kipling, wrote . . . .” or something like that. Even if he didn’t say it in his speech, for the sake of fluidity, he might have said it later on.

This year was the 45th anniversary of one of the most important speeches in U.S. history, Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech made in Washington, D.C. It was a brilliant speech, partially written out and partially ad-libbed by Dr. King, but it is widely known that he re-used material from previous speeches, and certainly, no one would disparage that. It is probably safe to say that it is generally deemed one of the great speeches in American history, perhaps in the same league with the much shorter Gettysburg Address.

It might surprise though, that the Reverend King got an awful lot of the speech from other sources. An awful lot. For one lesser thing, the speech made use of Biblical quotes. Quoting the Bible is sometimes an exception to the usual sourcing rules, as are quotes from Shakespeare. It’s not that they aren’t worthy of citation, it’s just that they are so familiar, they don’t need it. References to walking through “the Valley of Death” or “To be or not to be . . .” probably fit this description.

However, although King’s followers or church going compatriots may have been familiar with where these quotes came from, many, perhaps most people, were not. To be fair, King was so deeply versed in the Bible from childhood, and had such reasonable expectations that those who regularly listened to his speeches were part of the movement and familiar with them too, that he might genuinely expect most people would know them. One of these quotes was from Amos (“[W]e will not be satisfied until ‘justice (rolls) down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’” and also from Isaiah (“’Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight . . . .”

It can even be argued that as a preacher, he regularly quoted the Bible in his sermons and could do so with impunity. I only use it to introduce the topic, as it might mean something more to you, when you hear the rest.

Possible sources for two key portions of the speech might surprise you. Take this part of King’s speech, so familiar to us, that you will recognize it instantly:

“[F]rom every mountainside, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and the White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Great Smokies of Tennessee and from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—Not only for the minorities of the United States, but for the persecuted of Europe, for the rejected of Asia, for the disfranchised of South Africa and for the disinherited of all the earth . . . from every mountain side, let freedom ring.”

Actually, I was setting you up. That wasn’t King. It was Archibald Carey, another preacher and civil rights leader who gave that speech at the 1952 Republican convention (remember, the Republicans were the party of civil rights from Lincoln through 1964 when the world turned upside down); that is, nearly a decade before King’s great speech.

To be perfectly fair, in another speech King gave later on, he noted he was quoting or paraphrasing a famous orator, but he didn’t say who. Apparently, he did not think it important. But, if we apply the standard leveled against Biden (who almost always directly noted that he was quoting Kinnock) to King, he not only comes up short, he dramatically does so. Read the speeches together – they both merge the high flying lyrics to America together with the refrain Let Freedom Ring. Some King biographers are coy about this (Taylor Branch asserts it definitely) and suggest that this is only King’s possible source. It is hard to believe differently.

King had actually been using Carey’s idea (slightly changing the words) for about seven years at the time of his Washington, D.C., "I have a Dream speech". However, Carey, a lawyer, judge, alderman, pastor, orator, etc., from Chicago, outlived King by about thirteen years, yet never seems to have complained. Maybe he was proud of his contribution. Certainly they had met. In fact, Carey, who had managed to charm himself out of FBI's scrutiny by flattering Hoover personally and having his and his family's picture repeatedly taken with him, also arranged for King to meet with Hoover. It did not have the same result.

Even more famous is King’s refrain, “I have a dream” which one would expect was entirely original. It is probably not, but in this case, it is possible that King may not have remembered where it came from either. According to Dorothy Cotton, a King intimate who is still alive, she had told Dr. King that she heard a college kid (possibly civil rights worker Kathleen Conwell) praying who used that refrain and even the walking hand in hand imagery. King immediately began using it in his speeches.

It is also possible that he heard or was told about another civil rights worker named Prathia Hall, deceased only a few years now, who used the phrase in ’62. King was deeply impressed by the young Hall, whose father was also a preacher (her later profession) and once said “Prathia Hall is the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.” That’s like Sinatra saying he didn’t want to follow you on stage. But maybe he did not want to follow her on stage because she might steal his thunder.

But, I need to add here that others say King had already used “I have a dream” before ‘62 and I have simplified a deeper conversation that can be found in much more detail elsewhere. Personally, Dorothy Cotton’s version seems most credible to me.

Admiration for Dr. King is so strong among many people and might be so put off by this post, that it is necessary to add a last fact which deals with the type of writing in which the rules of plagiarism have been crystal clear. It may change your perspective. King received his doctorate in philosophy from Boston University in 1955. Undoubtedly, the school was very proud. Yet in 1991, after a review by four scholars, it was concluded unanimously by them that “[t]here 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."

Uh oh. The school did not posthumously rescind its degree, but, a letter was placed in his dissertation, so that anyone who read it would know. Clearly, when considering whether King might have intentionally plagiarized Carey and others, this verified plagiarism changes our perspective.

As with the Churchill example above, there was no reason to cite in the middle of an inspirational speech. But, King lived another 5 years and could have let us know.

But, don’t think I’m here to trash King. That’s not the point. King is a genuine American hero. He was a great man of remarkable courage, character and principle and we are a much better country because of him. But, I am also a believer in not letting anyone become too much of a cult figure. And, I do not believe that we should necessarily lessen the accomplishments of great men and women in our minds because of relatively minor faults. Notice, though, that last sentence is certainly qualified.

Plagiarism was certainly a King flaw, and we can’t just excuse it, but, overall, it does not significantly reduce a speech that can still make us shed tears. Nor does it make much of a dent in his heroic and inspirational life story. What it does for me, I hope, is help me consider a “great man” in a more realistic way.

It would be a little silly if I wrote all this about plagiarism and didn't tell you my main sources. There were two main ones, Drew Hansen' The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Speech that Inspired a Nation, a short, but well researched and excellent book, and, Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years: 1963-1965, regrettably, the only volume of the deservingly celebrated trilogy I have read yet. I am not a big Michael Eric Dyson fan, but I also read the part of his Debating Racism, which includes a discussion among him, Taylor Branch and Tavis Smiley on King that leads to substantially the same conclusions about his sources.

And all of it confirms my original thesis. Almost no one said what they said, and, if they did say it, someone else said it first.


  1. Anonymous7:13 AM

    King borrowed and/or stole source material for his speeches? THIS is news??? I thought everyone knew that. Big, fat, hairy deal.

  2. You know, I had the Bear down here this weekend and I could have done myself a favor and thrown the toaster in when he was taking a shower, but I missed my opportunity.

    No (and your screen name shouldn't be "Bear", it should be "Gadfly"), everyone does not know that. I've discussed this with a small number of people about exactly this topic, and they didn't know. A couple said they just didn't believe it. I sure didn't know it until I read about it, first in Branch. The point was not to pick on King, but to discuss that so much of what we think is an immortal and original work is actually derivative and sometimes outright theft.

    One more thing - Did Bear rip off that "Big fat hairy deal" from Garfield (the cat, not the president)? Probably a good topic if I can find the time to research it.

    Is there anyone out there who will defend me from this instigator?

  3. Anonymous12:07 PM

    Toaster in the shower !?!
    You're dispicable.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .