WHOSE VOICE IS THAT?

AN ASU AUTHOR EXAMINES THE SOURCES OF MARTIN LUTHER KING'S POWERFUL WORDS

Keith Miller moved to Arizona in 1987, when the state had just begun its political self-immolation. Evan Mecham, a Pontiac dealer and longtime election loser, had lucked into the governor's office and had quickly turned Martin Luther King Jr., dead almost 20 years and universally hailed as a titan of social change, into a cheap political chit. Mecham inaugurated his ugly, impeachment-bound reign by ceremonially rescinding a state holiday honoring King. Miller, who had demonstrated against the Vietnam War as a college student at Texas Christian University, worked to oust Mecham in 1987 by collecting signatures on recall petitions--at the time, a popular local diversion. "I had lived in Texas," says Miller of his first impressions of Arizona's political life. "There are some curious political figures in Texas, but when I got down here, I decided that this state is more politically bizarre than Texas. I didn't really think it was possible, but it's true."

Of potentially much greater concern to Miller than the annoying likes of Evan Mecham and Mecham's band of bitter conspiracy kooks was the effect he himself might have on the controversy. When Miller moved here to teach at Arizona State University, he was already deep into research on a book that could expose King--lionized by many as a Christlike figure, despised by a few for his civil rights victories--as a plagiarist and an intellectual thief. The book--titled Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King Jr. and Its Sources--would eventually offer dozens of examples of King's unacknowledged use of other people's words in his own sermons and speeches. Miller worried that the subtle context of his findings would by-pass too many readers. During the dark days during and just after the Mecham era, Miller knew there was a great chance that his work could add fuel to anti-King fires burning in his adopted state. "I thought about that," he says. "I couldn't help but think about that. But I'm a historian. I'm a scholar. My job is to figure out what is going on with King and what is going on with his language. "But if the truth conflicts with this image of King as a plaster saint, well, that's too bad. He's too great of a man to treat him as a god."

In the years since Miller's arrival here, he and the other scholars who study King have not treated their subject as a god. In 1990 the Wall Street Journal reported research which revealed that large sections of King's Ph.D. thesis were brazenly lifted from the writings of others. Miller's book, mentioned in the Journal story, was published in fall 1991. Miller wouldn't comment to the reporter who broke the story of King's academic plagiarism, believing his findings were too complicated for journalistic summary. The potential for misinterpretation was too great, he believed at the time. The issue was too explosive. "I didn't want it to get sandwiched in a sentence or a paragraph," he says today. Now, almost a full year after his book's publication, and with yet another King-holiday vote looming, Miller's research can be fully appreciated. Reviews from around the country have been mostly favorable. The book's revelations of King's "word-merging" and "borrowing" are, on the face of it, still quite shocking. Some of Martin Luther King's most inspirational words were not his own. But Miller's seemingly incendiary findings have not caught fire here--or anywhere, for that matter. Voice of Deliverance exists not as kindling for yahoos, but as an important addition to the ever-growing catalogue of King-related scholarship. It is the first book to systematically and critically examine King's spoken words, which were, after all, his most important words. It was written by a white boy working for the taxpayers of the state of Arizona, land of hate, the new Mississippi. The state that does not yet adequately honor Martin Luther King has nonetheless contributed significantly to the world's understanding of him. @rule:

@body:When Keith Miller was 16, his father, a Disciples of Christ minister (who borrowed sermons from some of the same preachers King borrowed from), drove the family from Amarillo to Dallas to hear King speak.

Miller remembers sitting in the balcony, far from the speaker's platform. If the text of the talk didn't leave much of an impression--Miller had to look it up much later to learn that the topic was nonviolence--King's presence still had an effect. "I was very impressed," Miller recalls. "He seemed like a commanding figure.

"But the easy thing to write would be this guy was inspired by the speech he heard King gave in high school. Actually, it's more King chose me than the other way around. Something just kind of seized me about the whole thing, something about him as a figure."
King seized Miller at Texas Christian University, where Miller studied as an undergraduate and where he returned for his Ph.D. in English. Miller, in need of a thesis topic, chose an examination of King's language--until then a topic untouched by King scholars--over yet another thesis on the language of dead white guys. The pantheon of Western thought had been overgrazed as thesis topics. "I didn't see any reason why I should write the 400th book about James Joyce, as opposed to the first book about King's language," he says. "It kind of put together my interest in politics and religion and social change and language."

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