WHOSE VOICE IS THAT?
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."
At the time of his thesis, a book-length study which he completed in 1984, Miller had not yet begun to dig into the deeper sources of King's rhetoric. Most traditional King scholarship attributed the black leader's eloquence and intellectual prowess to his years at Crozer Theological Seminary, near Philadelphia, and to his graduate studies at Boston University. Miller's early analysis at first mirrored the prevailing wisdom. "I wasn't thinking about black pulpit sources at all," he says. "I figured I'd do a chapter on his formal training in the universities, do a straightforward analysis of his language, then a conclusion and that'll be my book."
Miller left Texas for an instructorship job at Ohio State University. There he taught a large course load of remedial composition classes (For people who don't write well enough to get into freshman English) and wondered about his academic future. The instructorship was not an open-ended tenure track and would expire after three years.
Miller would eventually send out 300 job applications to universities around the country, with only a few nibbles. "I thought my career was gonna be over," he says. "I thought I was gonna be a technical writer in Columbus, Ohio, for the rest of my life." Late in the job search, ASU's English department came through with an offer. As part of his ongoing search for employment, Miller had continued to publish. He stayed with King as a topic, working his research into several articles. A couple of revelations--Miller had begun to discover King's "borrowings--led him to further explore King's linguistic roots. One such discovery came when a friend studying in divinity school passed along his own find: a passage King had lifted from an earlier preacher's sermon. Another discovery came during Miller's thesis research. Trolling through the volumes in his preacher-father's library, Miller came across portions of a well-known King speech buried in a printed text of boilerplate sermons. It was a book full of common religious words, ideas and themes used by countless busy ministers around the world. King, a preacher at heart and by training, had dipped from the same rhetorical well as Miller's father, the same well used by hardworking holy men who struggled to keep their flocks entertained and enlightened with new material each Sunday.
"I knew my father borrowed sermons," says Miller of his reaction to these discoveries. "I knew he had a hard, busy life. Sunday-morning services, Sunday-night services, three kids, marrying the couples, visiting the sick, burying the dead."
And King, he knew, was busier. The last half of King's life, during which King traveled relentlessly to further the cause, has been described by one biographer as a permanent presidential campaign. There were speeches to deliver, marches to lead, an unending marathon of media demands. "This guy didn't have time, either," Miller says. But were King's "borrowings" justifiable? Miller had firmly established himself in the world of academia, where plagiarism and improper sourcing of research and writing are tantamount to mortal sin. Despite King's achievements for mankind, what he did in his speeches and sermons (and, the world would learn later, in quite a bit of his writing) was, in a sense, stealing. "I think I felt a little disenchantment," says Miller of his emotions at discovering what would be seen by some as a significant blur in King's image. "Then I realized that this was simply the means by which he achieved what he achieved. "I also came to realize that the person I was disenchanted with--the person a lot of people think is King--isn't real. He's a myth. I see King less as a great spiritual leader and more as a pragmatist, someone who achieved epochal political change." So was born a book. @rule:
@body:Voice of Deliverance treats King as a great man and social architect, not a god. It also reveals that the great man's words--even some of his most famous words--were not always his own. For his own speeches, King borrowed heavily from the published sermons of other men, from good friends and from people he never met. Sometimes, he took whole phrases word for word.
Miller contends that this practice fits totally within a well-understood but not well-known tradition, a tradition to which his own father, now retired, once subscribed. Preachers borrow from one another constantly, says Miller; few sermons are completely original. In King's day, the practice was especially prevalent in black churches. For generations after the slavery era, blacks weren't allowed to read or write. King's father was illiterate when he started to preach, yet he was able to pass along the Bible's lessons by memorizing and adapting the sermons of his brethren. Repeating Bible metaphors and touchstone phrases, either read firsthand or heard in another man's church, was how folk preachers gained authority with their audiences. "What's so important and original about Keith's book is how much more fully it documents King's intellectual and spiritual roots in the preaching tradition of the church," says David Garrow, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning King biography Bearing the Cross.
"Almost all of us who have written about King and the movement come out of a background in political history rather than out of any background that knows religion and church history at all well. Some of those earlier preachers whom Keith has shown King was so heavily and directly influenced by were people I had never heard of." In the book, Miller goes further than providing context for King's borrowings. He actually credits King's use of assimilated language for the greatest breakthroughs of the civil rights movement. Almost 100 years had passed between the Civil War and the movement's entrance into popular consciousness in the mid-1950s, yet racism was still an entrenched, institutional way of life in America. All along, leaders both black and white had been preaching, often with great eloquence, against the evils of prejudice. King helped achieve the century's greatest political change in less than two decades. To do so, Miller claims, "he had to reach a white audience. That's his genius. How did he reach the white audience and change their minds?
"King had to be moderate enough to appeal to these white people, yet radical enough to get some substantial change," says Miller. "It's a damned difficult dilemma."
The difference between King and the civil rights leaders who preceded him was King's language. "I think it's the most important thing about him," says Miller. That King's masterful use of the Bible's idealistic and visionary language was filtered through various interpreters who preceded him to the pulpit is the soul of Voice of Deliverance. @rule:
@body:Among the well-known King speeches Miller analyzes in the book are "Drum Major Instinct," delivered two months before his death in 1968 and replayed during his funeral at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta; "Letter From Birmingham Jail," a sermon delivered at the height of his nonviolent battle against Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor; "I Have Been to the Mountaintop," the speech given to striking Memphis garbage men a day before his murder; and "I Have a Dream," which King delivered at the foot of the Lincoln Monument in 1963. All contain borrowings from unacknowledged sources. As Miller points out, the "voice-merging" technique King brought to his public speaking was a tool learned in the church of his father and grandfather, both preachers. "I Have a Dream" is an example of the technique. King constructed the speech, delivered to more than 100,000 civil rights marchers in Washington, D.C., by melding into one transcendent message bits of Biblical imagery, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. The speech, generally considered among the century's best, concludes with King quoting an "old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!"
En route to the speech's rousing climax, though, King recites the lyrics to "America the Beautiful." "From every mountainside," the song says, "let freedom ring."
"So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire," King continues, seemingly in his own words. "Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
"Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania . . . .
"Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
"Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. "Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi.
"From every mountainside, let freedom ring." But this section of the classic folk sermon carries startling echoes of a speech delivered more than a decade earlier by black pastor Archibald Carey. In an address to the 1952 Republican National Convention, Carey, whom King would later meet, concluded by reciting the lyrics to "America the Beautiful." Then: "That's exactly what we mean--from every mountainside, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia--let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States, but for . . . the disinherited of all the Earth--may the Republican party, under God, from every mountainside, LET FREEDOM RING!"
"It's going to take time for people to assimilate this whole business of his sources," says Miller. "The word 'plagiarism--the root of the word--means stealing and/or kidnaping. Stealing means taking something that doesn't belong to you that somebody else doesn't want you to have. That connotation is so powerfully negative that I don't think it's appropriate in this context. "These preachers all borrowed from each other, black, white, liberal, conservative, famous and ordinary. Ordinary preachers tend to borrow more often than famous. "The other preachers approved of what he was doing. They had reason to know about it. At least one or two of them did know about it, and they kept inviting him to their churches. They were glad!"
@body:The study of King's public language continues. The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, based at Stanford University, is gradually studying and publishing all of King's words. Some of the project's findings, like those first made public by the Wall Street Journal in 1990, have been--and will continue to be--disturbing to anyone who appreciates King or his legacy.
King was a plagiarist. His writing is full of uncredited language.
Keith Miller has now contributed to the debate by exposing and explaining King's use of borrowed material in his speeches and sermons. King's most devout followers are tempted to hold Miller responsible for exposing King's spoken-word "borrowings." Conversely, academics have criticized Miller for so meticulously placing the "borrowings" in their proper context; they interpret Miller's explanation as justification. After "eight years and nine months" researching Martin Luther King, Miller doesn't shy away from the charge. Miller, who likely will pick baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson as the topic of his next book, doesn't quite dismiss King's academic plagiarisms. King's scholarly writing was virtually meaningless weighed beside his later accomplishments, Miller says. And Miller is convinced that whatever technical, ivory-tower sins the preacher might have committed in assembling his school papers and later sermons and speeches, they are far outweighed by the profound changes King inspired in society. "There's this damned fascination with this plagiarism stuff," says Miller, who is teaching a class titled "Critical Reading and Writing About Literature" this semester. "What you do in school in not ultimately important, anyway. What matters is what you do with your life. "I think he should have used sources properly. I think that's a flaw, and I think he shouldn't have done that. But I don't see what it has to do with the civil rights movement. "It has nothing to do with 'I Have a Dream."
IN CHINA, NO RIGHTS TO LIFE... v9-23-92
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter