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Currently, Martin Luther King Jr. is viewed as a hero by Americans, although this wasn’t the case when he was alive…

Currently, Martin Luther King Jr. is viewed as a hero by Americans, although this wasn't the case when he was alive


American hero and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. According to a CBS News poll, 95% of American adults think he was a significant person in US history.

But things weren’t always like that. It was plainly not going to happen during King’s lifetime that he would become popular and have a national holiday honouring his birthday.

This demonstrates how the struggle for civil rights is frequently unpopular at the time, becoming so only in hindsight.



King was a tremendously contentious figure in the 1960s. His unfavourable rating was 63% according to the 1966 Gallup survey, which was the final one to question about his popularity during his lifetime. On a scale with -5 being the least favourable and +5 being the most positive, 39% of Americans gave him a -5 rating.

When King had shifted his focus from de facto segregation in northern cities to de jure segregation in the South, he received a very poor grade.

But King wasn’t exactly popular with everyone before that. King’s favorability was only 44% in the middle of 1964, as Congress was enacting a number of significant civil rights bills. His disapproval rating remained roughly the same at 38%.

In a 1964 Gallup poll, when asked which three Americans they had the least respect for, King placed in second with 42% of the vote. This was just a hair less than George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, who registered 47%. When asked which three Americans they have the most regard for, only 17% named King.

Even more telling, perhaps, is the fact that many White Americans believed King was harming rather than helping the cause of civil rights. 50% of White Americans said he was harming the civil rights movement in a 1966 Harris poll. Just 36% said he was assisting. In 1966, King’s favorability among them was 27%.

Black Americans had quite different perspectives. In 1963, most people (71%) and (21%%) believed that his effort for equal rights was progressing at the proper pace, while just 8% thought it was advancing too quickly. In 1966, King was seen favourably by 84% of Black adults, while only 4% held a negative opinion of him.

Many Americans still had a poor opinion of King even right after his passing. Almost a third (31%) claimed he was responsible for his own 1968 murder. Less than half (43%) reported feeling depressed (38%) or angry (5%).

By the middle of the 1970s, attitudes regarding King improved. The majority of Americans (67%) thought his protest marches accelerated the passage of civil rights legislation.

In spite of this, it was far from certain that King would be honoured with a federal holiday. Opinion was divided at the beginning of 1983, the year that legislation establishing the holiday’s namesake passed Congress and was signed into law by the president (Ronald Reagan).

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, a within-the-margin-of-error plurality (48%) said they didn’t want it to be a national holiday, while a nearly equal 47% said it should be. The majority of Americans (59%) did not support the national holiday until the year’s end, according to a Harris poll.

However, some states fell behind. Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a non-optional state holiday in South Carolina as the last state to do so in 2000.

Another state that delayed a while to declare King’s birthday a state holiday was Arizona. In 1986, the state legislature was unable to enact the measure, and two ballot initiatives were rejected in 1990.

As a result, the NFL made the decision to relocate the 1993 Super Bowl outside of the state the following year.

Only 25% of Americans who were questioned whether they supported or opposed this move said they did. The overwhelming majority (63%) expressed opposition to shifting the Super Bowl.

The NFL’s action had the desired outcome. King’s birthday became a state holiday in Arizona after a ballot initiative passed there in 1992. The NFL hosted the Super Bowl in 1996 in the state.

King’s legacy was firmly established in the minds of Americans as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. In 1999, a near-unanimous 89 percent of respondents said they admired him.

According to a Gallup poll from 2011, 94% of Americans had a favourable opinion of him. Those 65 and older, the majority of whom were born in 1927 or after, had a favourable rating of 89%. In 1966, King’s favorability rating among the same demographic was 41%.

In other words, King’s current widespread appeal isn’t just a result of the ageing of the population. People’s opinions evolved. People who disliked King when he was alive started to like him a lot more.

However, despite the fact that King has been permanently cemented in American culture, many people believe that much more work needs to be done to realise his vision of racial equality.

According to Gallup, far more Americans (38%) expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the nation’s race relations in the past year than there were before the turn of the century (14%).

A late-year PRRI study found that 58% of Americans, including 78% of Black Americans, believe that White supremacy is still a significant issue in the nation.



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