Words and deeds

November 14, 1990|By The New York Times

TO MILLIONS of admirers around the world, the disclosures about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his doctoral dissertation cast a shadow on his memory; a shadow should not, however, be confused with a cloud.

Scholarship rests on truth and trust, which is why scholars are right to denounce plagiarism mercilessly; that's why it is so dismaying to learn that King's doctoral thesis contained an extraordinary amount of material borrowed or copied, unattributed, from the work of others.

But however just it may be to denounce his scholarship, that should not be confused with his leadership.

Whether or not, as a student, he wrote what he wrote, King did what he did. One way to describe his achievement is with other words of his, from his famous "Letter From Birmingham City Jail."

"For years now I have heard the words 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'"

What the world honors when it honors King is his tenacity on behalf of racial justice -- tenacity equally against gradualism and against violence. He and many with him pushed Americans down the long road to racial justice. That achievement glows unchallenged through the present shadow. Martin Luther King's courage was not copied; and there was no plagiarism in his power.

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