The overwhelming approval with which Martin Luther King, Jr is remembered today stands in ironic contrast to the way he was perceived by white Americans while he was alive.
We may love Dr. King today, but that is a fairly recent phenomenon. We have Gallup poll data from May 1963 which show that 46% of Americans held an unfavorable view of King. The only public figure more disliked in the poll was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
The poll also noted that 78% of white people would leave their neighborhood if many black families moved in. When it comes to MLK’s march on Washington, 60% had an unfavorable view of the march, stating that they felt it would cause violence and would not accomplish anything
By 1966, more than two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of the civil rights leader. In other words, King was soundly rejected by most Americans.
Public opinion of King took decades to change. In 1986, he was given a national holiday, and a year later, more than three-quarters of white Americans had a favorable view of him, according to the Gallup poll of 1987.
So what changed?
Some of this change can be attributed to the replacement of older and less educated white Americans by younger, better educated ones.
But there is a more interesting and revealing answer. Oakland University political science professor Sheldon Appleton argues that the change in perception of King may be the result of a “widespread lack of knowledge about him and the history of the civil rights movement among the young-and even among many of those who lived through it”
Just 30 years after the March on Washington, 57% of white Americans admitted knowing little or nothing about the event. Only 11% claimed they knew or remembered “a great deal.” Among American adults under thirty years of age, white and black, the percentage confessing ignorance approached three-fourths.
In large part, you can thank our collective ignorance for shaping our perception of this great man.
Thanks for reading,