If you had to compile a list of events that shaped American, and even world history in the last century, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech would certainly rank high. It’s got all the ingredients that go into the making of an epochal moment – mass appeal, powerful rhetoric and a clear marker of change in the centuries-old battlefield of race relations. King’s contribution to the civil rights movement can’t be denied – in fact, to talk about the movement without discussing King’s pivotal role would be absurd. In this post, however, I look at the iconic leader’s chequered history of plagiarism, allegations that he appropriated ideas without attribution both as an academic and as a politician, and what this means for us in today’s environment.
King’s academic career contains a well-documented litany of plagiarism, and has been the subject of much literature. His most egregious breach of the academic code of conduct was in his doctoral thesis at Boston University, found to be identical in several respects to a dissertation submitted to the same university earlier by another student named Jack Boozer. In fact, some authors have even characterised King’s conduct as piracy (paywall). King’s plagiarism was later acknowledged by the University, but his doctorate was never revoked because his thesis still made “an intelligent contribution to scholarship”. Such an assessment appears extremely suspect – the evidence on record points to King’s thesis being neither ground-breaking in its approach nor creative in its substantiation. In fact, Ralph Luker, who conducted extensive research for the Martin Luther King Papers Project, posits that King’s academic success relied, in large part, on his habit of distilling the views of authorities in the subject and submitting them to the professors who held these authorities in high esteem. If this is true, then it’s very hard to justify the University’s decision – is there a clause in their plagiarism policy that says “None of this applies if you become a cultural icon”?
Of course, the issue of King’s academic misconduct is fairly cut and dried – it’s self-evident, it’s featured prominently in public discourse, and we’ve all made our peace with the fact that King’s academic history takes nothing away from his brilliance as a political leader and a revolutionary. This is what makes the second issue all the more interesting – did King appropriate the content of his speeches just as he did for his scholarly work?
Some argue that he did – there have been allegations that his “I have a dream” speech closely resembles Archibald Carey Jr.’s speech at the 1952 Republican National Convention – both speeches are almost identical in their ending, with a recitation of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, and an exaltation to “let freedom ring”. Even if this true, there are three possible arguments we can use to defend King’s conduct in this case. First, the standards for originality and the threshold to determine the legitimacy of idea-borrowing are significantly lower in public speech than they are for academic writing. Drew Hanson, writing for the Houston Chronicle, argues that King’s borrowing from Carey for “I have a dream” would not constitute plagiarism because King’s use of the words was sufficiently “transformative”, among other things. Regardless of this, the argument here is fairly intuitive – political leaders are rarely expected to deliver ground-breaking leaps of logic. In fact, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that less creative rhetoric is likely to be rewarded much more in terms of public support and audience traction.
Second, it’s possible to argue that revolutionary political speech, by its very nature, vindicates the non-attribution of borrowed ideas. This is a more ends-oriented claim – that it wouldn’t matter if King “stole” every word he spoke, but the fact that he used these words in a powerful manner to bring about positive change in the world around him should justify his lack of attribution. This leads us to a larger question that may need to be interrogated further – is it possible for us to visualise scenarios in which conduct that would otherwise be in violation of our notions of intellectual property would be acceptable if it served a broader public interest, or contributed constructively to public discussions of equality and justice?
Third, and I think most interestingly (why else do you think I saved it for last?), it’s possible to use King’s upbringing and education to rationalise, if not completely justify his actions. We mustn’t forget that King was, first and foremost, a pastor, and was therefore brought up in the unique oral tradition of the church. Preachers were often trained (registration required to view article) to borrow ideas freely, mixing and matching in a manner that would be analogous to the remix culture in music production and folklore. Thus, the argument here is that the way in which King and his contemporaries viewed the appropriation of ideas is fundamentally different from the way in which we view it today, with our conceptions of intellectual property. Thus, it would seem that King, in his public speaking as well as his academic writing, looked at the ideas around him as common property, as opposed to something that is exclusively owned its “original creator”. Further, in the context of the civil rights movement, art, literature and sermons could be viewed as shared elements of the collective oral culture of an entire race (a race, moreover, that had just escaped slavery and owned little more than its cultural heritage). In that sense, it would seem that ideas of intellectual property would fail to encapsulate such phenomena altogether. There appears to be a fundamental incompatibility here, an incompatibility that has raised its head in applications of IP law to other oral traditions such as Carnatic music, for example – IP appears to fail in situations without clearly defined ownership over the discrete elements of a larger body of work – both where the medium allows for extensive borrowing among parties in the creation of such elements (such as Black culture) and where the medium allows for extensive individual improvisation over broadly defined compositions (as in Carnatic music).
I end this post with a counter to this last defence in King’s personal case: the iconic leader was very much aware of how IP law worked, and how it would apply to his activities. The evidence? King sued distributors of unauthorised copies of “I have a dream” within months of making the speech. It’s evident that regardless of what he thought of sermons and free culture, King was very clear about his speech being private property. The speech is now the property of his heirs, who have demonstrated a similar commitment to keeping it out of the public domain for as long as possible, much to the consternation of civil rights scholars, copyright activists and historians.