More on Martin: a man much greater than his faults.

In a comment to my last post on Martin Luther King, Abel Pharmboy of the blog Terra Sigillata writes that a commenter on his blog claimed that King plagiarized the quote Abel and I both cited from Rabbi Hillel Silver, a major figure in the American rabbinate for several decades.

That commenter, Right Wing Professor Gerard Harbison is correct, a little — and misleading to the point of deception at the same time. (Don’t blame me if his epithet looks like a political gibe. That’s his self-styling).

Harbison links to John Lerwill’s blog to provide the original Rabbi Silver material. Lerwill’s post produces a 724 word redaction of an eight page passage in Silver’s book. Without the original book in front of me (at about 0 degrees wind chill where I sit, I ain’t heading out to the library right now) I’m going to estimate that would have been about a 3,000 word passage, maybe more.

Harbison then reduced that 724 excerpt to 66 words, without any indication of how radical his surgery had been, nor where the cuts and lacunae fell.

Why that kind of undocumented editing? Because the King quote is 64 words long — and by cherry-picking the original, Harbison was able to make it look like King had performed a straight rip-off, the kind that pretty much always gets an F on a paper when an undergraduate pulls that kind of stunt.

In fact, even with the 724 word version, King’s treatment of Hillel’s is much more a gloss than a straight rip-off. That can be a distinction without a huge difference I suppose, but it is clearly not what Harbison implied King had done.

More to the point, King actually makes a quite different claim than Silver. Silver’s argument, as represented in the Lerwill excerpt is an early version of the “non-overlapping magisteria”kind — Silver writes, for example, “There was never any real conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different, though not in opposition. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same.”

King skipped all that part (and this kind of stuff is scattered through the Lerwill version). Instead, he focused on what he presumably felt was the nub of the issue: that science and religion have important points of connection.

That’s arguable too — and certainly, plenty of folks in the science blogging community find the notion anathema. But King did not follow Silver down the road of intellectual apartheid, an agreement to reserve certain matters for the exclusive authority of one side or other.

In music there is an old notion (now legally enshrined, I believe) that a repetition of more than a few notes of a passage is an actual act of imitation. Less than that, and it is presumed that there is a kind of musical langauge that everyone gets to speak. Maybe the four word phrase “Science investigates; religion interprets” crosses the line. But King had his own mind, and said something quite different than did the source of at least some of his expression.

Should he have come up with some other formulation, or else acknowledged Rabbi Silver. Perhaps — probably even. But Harbison’s is a hatchet job — almost literally, given the work he did to cut and paste his alleged proof-text. Why he felt compelled to do so I won’t speculate, at least not in print.

That King had his flaws is well known now, in part thanks to J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretaps. But I’d say that Martin Luther King, Jr. did pretty good in this world, whatever his sins, and he certainly paid the price for acting “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right” as he strove to finish his work. Given a choice of a companion in a foxhole in armed or moral combat between King and his critics, I know who I would want by my side.

Update: Link added (with apologies for the original omission) to Abel’s post on Terra Sigillata that got this response going, and to correct a couple of typos.

Image: King in the front rank of the 1963 March on Washington. United States Information Agency photograph of the March on Washington, (National archive number 80-G-413998). Pictured with MLK, are civil rights and union leaders, including Joseph L. Rauh Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Walter Reuther.

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4 Comments on “More on Martin: a man much greater than his faults.”

  1. Dave Munger Says:

    This is an excellent post. I knew King has been accused of plagiarism, but it’s good to see the record set straight about at least this one incident. My understanding is that there are other cases where the evidence against King is more compelling. Do you know if there are similar refutations for those allegations?


  2. Sweet blog. I never know what I am going to come across next. I think you should do more posting as you have some pretty intelligent stuff to say.

    I’ll be watching you . :)


  3. [...] and documentary filmmaker Tom Levenson then wrote a superb post, as is his style. Levenson analyzed the two passages, noting that [...]


  4. [...] Richard R. Smith, 1930). That passage can be found here. However, the incomparable Tom Levenson articulated last year that King diverged from Silver. Levenson wrote that opposed to Silver, King held that science and [...]


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