To mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ipsos, a national online research group, explored attitudes of Americans toward Dr. King in 2019. The survey included a multitude of other public figures, many of them prominent African American leaders, and social movements.
Of 18 figures and organizations associated with the struggle for equal rights and treatment (and some of its foes), Martin Luther King Jr. is the one with the highest level of favorability: 90 percent among all U.S. adults, including 98 percent among African Americans and 87 percent among non-Hispanic whites.
Three in four Americans (76 percent) say the tone of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message about equal rights for Blacks was just about right for that time of history while 6 percent say it was too forceful and 11 percent not forceful enough. However, among African Americans, a larger proportion (24 percent) say it was not forceful enough.
Closely following King in popularity is Rosa Parks with 88 percent of Americans viewing her favorably.
Among sports figures, Muhammad Ali (77 percent) has the highest favorability rating, surpassing Jesse Owens (57 percent) and Colin Kaepernick (41 percent).
Other widely popular figures include Harriet Tubman (78 percent), Nelson Mandela (77 percent), Maya Angelou (66 percent), Frederick Douglass (58 percent), and Thurgood Marshall (58 percent).
Among all the public figures asked about in the survey, King shows the lowest difference between his favorability rating among Blacks and among whites (11 points).
In contrast, eight figures and organizations have favorability ratings that are at least 40 percentage-points higher among Black respondents than among whites: the Black Panther Party (56 points), W.E.B. Du Bois (52), Al Sharpton (51), Malcolm X (49), Colin Kaepernick (49), Jesse Jackson (44), Ida B. Wells (42), and Frederick Douglass (41).
In some cases, the difference is largely due to low levels of familiarity among whites: 73 percent of whites do not know Wells, 69 percent Du Bois, and 44 percent Douglass.
However, for several other Black figures and organizations, the gap is due to the fact that white respondents view them unfavorably. This is particularly the case for the Black Panthers (55 percent unfavorable among whites), Sharpton (53 percent), and Kaepernick (44 percent).
Among the social movements tested, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s shows the highest proportion of Americans saying it has made the country better (70 percent). Only 8 percent say it has made things worse, 14 percent say it has made no difference and 8 percent are not sure. Positive perceptions of the Civil Rights Movement are shared equally by whites and Blacks (72 percent each).
Other movements most widely seen as having made the country better are the LGBTQ equal rights movement (46 percent vs. 23 percent worse), the #MeToo movement (45 percent vs. 22 percent), and the Labor Movement (42 percent vs. 11 percent).
Similar to Black Lives Matter, several movements studied are highly polarizing. Two of them have a slightly net-positive balance: the Anti-Vietnam War movement (31 percent better vs. 21 percent worse) and the Never Again/Anti-Gun Violence movement (30 percent vs. 24 percent).
Public opinion is equally divided on Occupy Wall Street (19 percent better vs. 19 percent worse) and net-negative on the Tea Party movement (23 percent better vs. 30 percent worse).