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Dissertation of Martin Luther King, Jr.

During his third year of doctoral work at Boston University , Martin Luther King wrote Crozer Theological Seminary ’s George Davis , his former advisor, about his progress in graduate school. He disclosed that he had begun to research his dissertation and that the late Edgar Brightman , his first mentor at Boston, and his current dissertation advisor, L. Harold DeWolf , were both “quite impressed” with his course work. “So far, my Dissertation title is: ‘A comparison of the conception of God in the thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.’ I am finding the study quite fascinating. If there are no basic interruptions, I hope to complete it by the end of the coming summer” ( Papers 2:224 ). Davis commended King on selecting “an excellent dissertation topic” and expressed his confidence that King would “do a good piece of work with it” ( Papers 2:225 ).

King passed his final doctoral examination in February 1954, and his dissertation outline was approved by Boston University’s graduate school on 9 April, shortly before he accepted the call to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church . King’s letter of acceptance to Dexter’s congregation specified that he be “granted an allowance of time to complete my work at Boston University,” though he would be “able to fill the pulpit at least once or twice per month.” He also asked that the church cover his expenses during the completion of his dissertation, “including traveling expenses” ( Papers 2:260 ).

King chose to focus his dissertation research on Tillich and Wieman due to their status as influential religious thinkers and as representatives of divergent views on the nature of God. King’s comparison of Tillich’s and Wieman’s concepts of God reflected his adherence to personalism , which proceeds from the belief that God possesses a personality and can therefore have a relationship with human beings. King’s analysis of Tillich’s and Wieman’s theological concepts as “unsatisfactory” and “inadequate as philosophical and religious world-views” followed from his belief that God was a living force, “responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart; this God both evokes and answers prayer” ( Papers 2:532; 533; 512 ). He found that both Wieman and Tillich rejected the conception of a personal God, which resulted in “a rejection of the rationality, goodness, and love of God in the full sense of the words. An impersonal ‘being-itself’ or ‘creative event’ cannot be rational or good, for these attributes are of personality” ( Papers 2:506 ). In the end, King pointed out the two theologians’ views of God are not “basically sound” because they “render real religious experience impossible” ( Papers 2:532 ).

Recent scholarship by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project of the King Institute has revealed that as a student at Crozer and Boston, King frequently appropriated the words of other writers without proper attribution. Volumes I and II of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., have demonstrated that while his bibliographies contained the authors and books that he drew on in his own compositions, his papers often lacked the footnotes and quotation marks that identified his use of these sources in his text. His habit of plagiarizing others’ work, intentionally or not, can be found in the various drafts of his dissertation. King borrowed from several secondary sources without proper citation, including a dissertation written by fellow Crozer student Jack Boozer for DeWolf three years earlier, and a review of Tillich’s Systematic Theology written by one of King’s former professors.

King’s professors did not detect this pattern in his scholarship. After King submitted the first draft of his dissertation, DeWolf filed a report observing that he had sent his specific criticisms, “most of them formal or minor,” to the candidate. DeWolf reminded King to submit an abstract of the dissertation “early” to allow proper time for revision and to clearly set forth his thesis statement ( Papers 2:333 ). That said, DeWolf projected that the finished version would be an “excellent and useful scholarly achievement” ( Papers 2:334 ). S. Paul Schilling, the dissertation’s second reader, approved the draft as well.

King turned in the final version of his dissertation by the 15 April 1955 deadline, returning to Boston for his oral defense. Graduate faculty at Boston University voted to confer the PhD on King in May 1955; however, due to financial difficulties and Coretta Scott King ’s pregnancy, he was unable to attend graduation.

Carson et al., “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Scholar: A Reexamination of His Theological Writings,” Journal of American History 78 (June 1991): 93–105.

Davis to King, 7 December 1953, in Papers 2:225–226 .

DeWolf, First Reader’s Report, 26 February 1955, in Papers 2:333–334 .

Introduction, in Papers 1:49–50 .

Introduction, in Papers 2:22–26 .

King, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” 15 April 1955, in Papers 2:339–544.

King to Davis, 1 December 1953, in Papers 2:223–224 .

King to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 14 April 1954, in Papers 2:260 .

King Papers Project, “The Student Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research,” Journal of American History 78 (June 1991): 23–31.

Schilling, Second Reader’s Report, 26 February 1955, in Papers 2:334–335 .

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I need to prove my module results so far

If you need to prove your module results you’ve achieved so far all you need to do is access your Record of Agreed Results (ROAR) letter which you can download yourself from Gradintelligence . This document will show your ratified results for your completed modules so far in your course and shows King’s and ECTS credits. You can  view an example of this letter  online. I’m not sure how to log into my Gradintelligence account We run a process every month which invites any newly enrolled undergraduate or postgraduate taught student to register for a Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) on Gradintelligence. Your ROAR and HEAR are generated together and both are available on Gradintelligence. Once you have registered, you will be able to see all of the modules that you are undertaking and results. Important to know: Please check your KCL email account for information about registering for your HEAR. To download your Record of Agreed Results (ROAR):

How quickly will my results appear? As soon as results have been ratified by an assessment board, and released on to the students record, they should appear within 2 working days. Important to know:

I’m having difficulties accessing my account or my documents If you are a current student and having difficulties accessing your Gradintelligence account, please see our article Accessing my Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) on Gradintel for more guidance. If you have logged in but no ROAR or HEAR are appearing there, please let us know and we can look into this for you.

I’m looking for a GPA conversion for my results If you’re a King’s graduate or a current student approaching the end of your studies, and you are applying to institutions overseas that require a GPA for your degree, you’ll need to use an external service provider to calculate this conversion – unfortunately King’s can’t provide this for you. UK ENIC is one organisation that provides this service, as does WES , which focuses on the US and Canada. To be sure however, we advise checking with the institution are you applying to about conversion resources, since they may have particular organisations they use to verify conversions or equivalences.  

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24 May 2021

Managing your master's dissertation

We’ve rounded up support and expertise from across King’s to help you complete your dissertation

A stack of coloured books in a library

Dissertations can be daunting at the best of times. In these changed circumstances, it can feel more challenging without our usual routines and support structures.

We’ve rounded up support and expertise from across King’s to help you plan your time, develop your skills and complete your dissertation with confidence.

Get the basics right

It may sound obvious but keeping well can help you manage pressurised situations.

By working late into the night, skipping meals or reaching for quick snacks, it may seem like you are putting your studies first. But these habits are not sustainable in the long run and can affect your concentration.

Prioritising good sleep, drinking enough water and eating nourishing meals will give you the foundations to flourish. Check out this guide to living well on Student Services Online.

Be prepared

Avoid surprises by making sure you understand your department’s requirements and deadlines for dissertations.

Organise your reading list and familiarise yourself with the sources you will use, whether that’s from King’s Libraries & Collections, external archives or participants in your research.

Keep in contact with your supervisor to let them know how you are getting on. Don’t be afraid to ask them if you feel unsure.

Two King's students walking side by side and chatting

Walk and talk

Walking, especially in nature, is thought to kick-start creativity.

This summer, as part of the King’s Edge programme , you can get advice and support from an experienced researcher from King’s Academy, all while taking a walk around London’s green spaces. As you stroll, they will help you to talk through your ideas and articulate your thoughts before you commit them to paper. This change of scene could help you get a fresh perspective on your project or work out the best approach to your dissertation.

Find out more and book your Creative Dissertation Walk.

There are plenty of resources available to help you develop the skills you need to research, write and edit your dissertation.

King’s Libraries Learning and Skills Service (KLaSS) offers guides and tips for all subjects, helping you navigate academic sources and reference them correctly .

King’s Academy runs online workshops and one-to-one sessions on study skills for master’s students. From narrowing down your research area through to writing and proofreading, they can support you during every step of the dissertation process.

Putting pen to paper can feel intimidating, especially if you have been researching for a long time. You could try writing alongside others at a Just Write , an online retreat for master’s students who want to work on their dissertation in a collaborative environment. You will be encouraged to set goals for the workshop, holding you accountable to get things done.

Two books and a fountain pen

Plan your time

A clear plan of action can help you feel in control.

King’s Academic Skills for Learning on KEATS has tips to for studying smarter and managing your time. You can also book one-to-one online sessions with Academic Skills Tutors.

Research shows that we can only concentrate for 30 – 45 minutes at a time. Form a plan that is achievable, splitting your research into manageable chunks. Make sure to include breaks and down time away from your desk.

Keeping moving is a great way to clear your head. Boxing, basketball and ballet barre are just some of the free online and in-person outdoor classes available with King’s Sport . Why not try something new when you need a break?

Remember that routines should be flexible enough to live with. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t stick strictly to your plan. Writing a dissertation is a long process and you can start afresh tomorrow.

Get the support you need

Support is always available at King’s.

We are committed to ensuring that students are not academically disadvantaged due to the circumstances of this year. You can find out more about how we are ensuring fair assessment in 2021 on Student Services Online .

You can also borrow equipment if you are worried about your internet connection or laptop.

If you are struggling with mental health or stress, there are a range of wellbeing services available.

It can be tempting to bottle things up. But talking about how you are feeling with friends and loved ones, the Chaplaincy or your personal tutor, can really help.

All students can use Togetherall , a safe space online to get things off your chest and learn how to manage your mental health and wellbeing.

Positive Peers are student partners of KCLSU Wellbeing who promote positive mental health and wellbeing for all students at King’s. Take a look at how they can support you.

King’s offers free mental health support including counselling appointments throughout the week and at evenings and weekends. Visit Student Services Online to find out your options.

Discovery of Early Plagiarism by Martin Luther King Raises Troubling Questions for Scholars and Admirers

The startling disclosure that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., plagiarized substantial portions of his doctoral dissertation and other student papers has raised troubling questions for the researchers who discovered the plagiarism, for the scholars serving as advisers to the project of editing King’s papers, and for a society that has generally revered King’s legacy.

Chief among those questions, say sources involved in the case, are:

Did scholars proceed appropriately, and quickly enough, when they uncovered damaging information about a public figure they admire?

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Is their primary duty to their discipline or to a broader public?

How will the disclosure affect both scholarship on the civil-rights movement and King’s image, already tarnished to some degree by recent publicity about extramarital affairs?

The questions were sparked primarily by a report first published in The Wall Street Journal. It said scholars had discovered that King had apparently included, without sufficient attribution, many passages from other authors in his dissertation, which was completed at Boston University in 1955.

At a news conference the next day at Stanford University, Clayborne Carson, a historian who is director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project, confirmed that he and others had discovered a consistent pattern of “unacknowledged appropriation of words or ideas” in King’s student papers.

Under Mr. Carson’s direction, the project since 1984 has been preparing a multi-volume edition of all of King’s papers. The first volume, which will include King’s writings from his years as a student at Boston University and elsewhere, was to have been published early next year. It has been delayed for an additional year, however, to document fully the instances of plagiarism in King’s student papers and to prepare an article on them for a scholarly journal, Mr. Carson said.

Mr. Carson held the press briefing to elaborate on the project’s finding. He told The Chronicle that a member of the project had inadvertently leaked news of the finding to The Wall Street Journal while Mr. Carson was making final revisions on a scholarly article about the plagiarism. Mr. Carson said his article had been accepted by The Journal of American History and is slated to appear in its June 1991 issue.

In a lengthy statement released to the press this month, the editors of the King papers acknowledged that in 1988, in the course of work being carried out to annotate the texts King used in developing his thesis, “staff members became aware that many of King’s academic papers contained passages that were similar or identical to texts King consulted, and that these source texts were not adequately cited.”

King acknowledged his sources in a general way in the introduction to the dissertation, the project’s editors said, but he did not footnote or otherwise clearly indicate specific passages taken from other materials.

The project’s editors said their work was meant to document the historical and intellectual roots of King’s ideas, and not to pass judgment on whether his citation practices conformed to scholarly convention.

Nonetheless, because of the controversial nature of their finding, Mr. Carson met with about a dozen members of the project’s advisory board, including a number of scholars, in October 1989 to decide how to make their discovery public.

According to scholars familiar with it, the discussion focused on two general options:

Whether to release the information separately from the first volume of edited papers.

Whether to include in the relevant volume a detailed but visually distracting citation-by-citation annotation, or a composite summary of the appropriated passages.

“We were worried that many in the press would distort the evidence and sensationalize it,” said Louis R. Harlan, a board member and professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park, who edited the papers of Booker T. Washington.

The feeling, Mr. Harlan recalled, was that “it’s important to be a good historian here.”

“We wanted to say it right and truthfully and fully at the time we break the story, and scholarship breaks slowly.”

Mr. Carson said he was concerned that if the project’s editors did not write about the plagiarism before publishing it in the volumes, the issue “would be the only thing discussed about the scholarly volumes.” He added that he was not surprised at the wide publicity given to the plagiarism issue, but he was concerned that the “vast majority of our work will be overlooked.”

Many of Mr. Carson’s colleagues said he had handled the situation with integrity.

But some critics decry the nearly three-year delay in making public the extent of King’s plagiarism.

Scholars and others say they had been hearing about the evidence of plagiarism through the academic grapevine at least since 1989. Last spring Thomas Fleming, the editor of Chronicles, a conservative journal of opinion, made reference to it in speeches he gave at two scholarly meetings. In addition, his journal planned to run an opinion piece by John Shelton Reed in its June 1990 issue. In the piece, Mr. Reed, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, urged Boston University to revoke King’s doctoral degree and instead award an honorary one.

Mr. Reed, who is now on leave at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, Cal., said of his suggestion: “He’d still be `Dr. King,’ but his award would be for work he did do, not for work he didn’t. He went out and changed the world, and not many BU grads can say that.”

Mr. Reed said he wrote his column, which he described as a “thumb sucker” about scholars’ strong distaste for plagiarism and the impact of the charges on King’s legacy, on the assumption that by the time it ran, the plagiarism story would already have broken in the general press.

As the late-May publication date neared, it became apparent to Mr. Reed that that wasn’t going to happen, and, he said, “I didn’t want the story to be `Reed alleges King plagiarism.’ ”

Mr. Reed also said that, after sending a copy of his planned column to Boston University as a courtesy, he had received a strongly worded letter from the university’s interim president, Jon Westling, insisting that there was no substantiated evidence of plagiarism. Mr. Reed also said that he did not want it to appear that he had taken advantage of his advisory role at the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has already granted nearly $500,000 to the King papers project. Mr. Reed withdrew his column.

Theodore Pappas, a Chronicles editor, said that when he discussed the issue with one of the editors at the King-papers project over the summer, he was told that they would need nine months to document the instances of plagiarism. Mr. Pappas secured copies of King’s dissertation and that of the late Jack S. Boozer, who had completed his thesis in 1952 under the same adviser, the late L. Harold deWolf, who supervised King’s dissertation three years later. The Boozer and King theses dealt with similar topics, and King cited the former’s thesis in his introduction.

In an article to appear in the December issue of Chronicles, which was sent to press two weeks before the The Wall Street Journal story appeared, Mr. Pappas reprints six lengthy passages from King’s dissertation that matched passages in Mr. Boozer’s thesis nearly word for word.

In response to the information released by Mr. Carson, Boston University has announced that four theology scholars will investigate the plagiarism charges. In a statement, Mr. Westling, the acting president, said that “35 years ago, as now, the university’s standards for the proper use and attribution of scholarly sources were strict and explicitly made known to all graduate students.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Pappas thinks that the scholarly community has dragged its feet on disseminating the plagiarism evidence because it runs counter to the “official position” on King.

Whether that charge is valid -- Stanford’s Mr. Carson and officials at Boston University do not think it is -- scholars and veterans of the civil-rights movement agree that the evidence of plagiarism will probably tarnish King’s reputation in some quarters.

Maryland’s Mr. Harlan pointed out, however, that “most major historical figures go through cycles of reputation.”

Echoing the view of the project editors and Boston University officials, Mr. Harlan stressed that King’s status in history was based on his dedication to fighting for civil rights. “So he was less than a great scholar,” Mr. Harlan said. “So what? He served a noble cause.”

Mr. Carson noted that “anyone doing research has to go on faith that it is better to know more than less.”

“All of us knew we would come up with positive and negative information,” he said.

Despite the discomfort caused by finding evidence of plagiarism, Mr. Carson said, the discovery “increases our understanding of how a flawed individual does remarkable things, which is a more interesting story than how a perfect individual does them.”

Another member of the King-papers advisory board, Ira Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland and director of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, said he believed the revelations of plagiarism might have a salutary effect in the long run.

Acknowledging that he is not himself a King scholar, Mr. Berlin argued that the finding was “a real intellectual problem for King scholars, and they’re going to have to deal with it.”

“They will have to think more about how he learned and what influenced his thinking,” Mr. Berlin said.

Seeing how heavily King drew on the thinking of other theologians and philosophers, Mr. Berlin added, “kind of renews an emphasis on the civil-rights movement as a whole, not just on individual icons.”

The question should become, he said, “not why we don’t have another Martin Luther King, but why we don’t have another movement which would produce another Martin Luther King.”


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  1. Dissertation of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    King turned in the final version of his dissertation by the 15 April 1955 deadline, returning to Boston for his oral defense. Graduate faculty at Boston University voted to confer the PhD on King in May 1955; however, due to financial difficulties and Coretta Scott King ’s pregnancy, he was unable to attend graduation.

  2. Managing your master's dissertation

    Dissertations can be daunting and it can be hard to know where to begin! We’ve rounded up support and expertise from across King’s to help you plan your time, develop your skills and complete your dissertation with confidence. Get the basics right. It may sound obvious but keeping well can help you manage pressurised situations.

  3. Martin Luther King Jr. authorship issues

    As was true of King's other academic papers, the plagiaries in his dissertation escaped detection in his lifetime. His professors at Boston University, like those at Crozer, saw King as an earnest and even gifted student who presented consistent, though evolving, theological identity in his essays, exams and classroom comments....

  4. I need to prove my module results so far

    To download your Record of Agreed Results (ROAR): Activate your account on using your King's email address. We recommend searching your KCL email account for your activation link sent in an email when you started your course. Search “hear” or “gradintelligence” in your inbox.

  5. Managing your master's dissertation

    Managing your master's dissertation We’ve rounded up support and expertise from across King’s to help you complete your dissertation Dissertations can be daunting at the best of times. In these changed circumstances, it can feel more challenging without our usual routines and support structures.

  6. Discovery of Early Plagiarism by Martin Luther King Raises

    The startling disclosure that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., plagiarized substantial portions of his doctoral dissertation and other student papers has raised troubling questions for the...