Selma: Did Martin Luther King, Jr. love America?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Selma
Still from Selma-the-Movie

CARE TO READ MORE? Film reviewer Edward McNulty gave the movie “Selma” 5 out of 5 stars. Click the photo to read McNulty’s entire review.

This weekend begins the 50th anniversary of the historic Selma to Montgomery marches. I was just a kid then, but I remember the horrific images of Bloody Sunday—the 7th of March, 1965—when hundreds of marchers were stopped, beaten, and tear-gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police and county posse. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the next two marches, the last one making it to Montgomery under federal protection.

All week we’ll discuss the marches and their effects, but today I want to ask this: Did MLK love America?

I raise this question in part because of recent claims that Obama doesn’t love America. It’s ironic that his patriotism has been called into question on the anniversary of the Selma marches. It began when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a speech that the president “doesn’t love America.” Overall, about a third of all Americans (35%) say Obama doesn’t love America, according to a poll. Republicans are much more likely to say Obama doesn’t love America, while the vast majority of Democrats (85%) say he does.

So, what about Dr. King? Did he love America? The answer depends more on when you ask than who you ask.

In the 1960s, King was one of the most hated figures in America, according to public opinion polls at the time. “A number of survey items asked about King in the mid-sixties show him more reviled than revered,” wrote political scientist Sheldon Appleton in 1995. In fact, King was “one of the most disliked American figures in the age of public opinion polling.”

For example, consider the results from a survey technique called the scalometer. This technique presents a respondent with a 10-point scale ranging from +5 to -5. In 1966, 41% of Americans rated King -5. Almost seven of ten Americans (68%) gave negative ratings.

Twenty years later, a huge shift in public opinion took place. In 1987, 76% of Americans gave King a favorable rating. This favorable rating has held firm. In 2013, for example, a poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 80% of Americans had a favorable view of the great civil rights leader. Almost half had a very favorable view.

I have no doubts that King loved America, and that Obama loves America. They were what I call “critical patriots” in my recent book United America. They see what America should be and can be—and want to the nation to live up to its ideals.

What’s your opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Did he love America?
Does the president?

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Selma: Did King die for his values? What about Lincoln?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Selma
Lincoln's funeral along Pennsylvania Avenue 1865

Famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady took many photos of Abraham Lincoln and he documented the president’s funeral as well. This photograph, taken from a rooftop, shows Lincoln’s funeral procession along Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. on April 19, 1865. Crowds gathered all along the route both on the street and on rooftops. Lincoln’s hearse was moving from the funeral held at the White House to the U.S. Capitol where his body lay in state before traveling by train to Springfield, Illinois, for burial. (From the collection of the Library of Congress; available for public use.)


Yesterday I was interviewed by the Voice of America network for its broadcast to North Korea. The subject was my latest book, United America, which documents the 10 core values that Americans share. What do you think the North Koreans reaction will be?

The interviewer’s last question was the most intriguing: “Is there any notable person who sacrificed himself or herself to protect these values?”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was my immediate response, especially since this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. King held a mirror up to America, showing the nation where we did not live up to our core values of freedom of expression, equality of opportunities, respect for people of different races and religion, and more. At the time of his death, however, he was the most reviled public figure in America, as shown in public opinion polls (see Monday’s column).

King died for the values he defended. James Earl Ray was his convicted killer, though Ray recanted his confession of guilt. Some claimed a government conspiracy, a charge that has never been fully proven or disproven. In 2027, secret FBI documents about the assassination will be released.

Lincoln was also killed for his values. As Lincoln authority Duncan Newcomer explained, “Historians tell us that John Wilkes Booth became the Confederate Killer because he had heard Lincoln’s recent speech on reconstruction and believed it meant what we now would call racial integration. Booth’s fury at the mere idea of equal association and legal status with blacks pushed him from kidnapping to murder, and from plan to impetuosity.”

What notable person would you add to the list of those who died defending American values?
How do you think the North Koreans will react to my message of unity around core values?

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Selma: A snapshot of changing racial attitudes in America

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Selma
Stevie Wonder Happy Birthday single

CHANGING RACIAL ATTITUDES: What were some of the watershed events between Selma and today? Prior to political scientist Sheldon Appleton’s report in 1995, the U.S. had declared a national holiday honoring Dr. King thanks in part to Stevie Wonder’s song, “Happy Birthday,” and America’s largest petition drive on a single issue, according to the Nation magazine. Even hold-out regions were honoring King by 1995. After losing a Super Bowl because of its refusal to celebrate King’s day, Arizona voters approved the holiday in 1992.

The Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 were watershed events in the civil rights movement. What were attitudes about racial discrimination between then and now?

We’ve got one snapshot from the mid 1990s, thanks to political scientist Sheldon Appleton who reported findings in 1995 from several national surveys. In 1993, large majorities of black and white Americans agreed that Martin Luther King, Jr. made things better for blacks in America. Large majorities also agreed that King was “just about right in his efforts to gain equal rights for blacks.”

However, black and white Americans disagreed strongly on a number of issues. Only 21% of whites said that racial discrimination was the reason why blacks had worse housing, jobs, and income compared to whites. About 44% of blacks attributed these inequalities to discrimination.

Even bigger differences appeared when evaluating the extent of racial discrimination against blacks in general. Less than one-third of whites (31%) said racial discrimination against blacks was a serious problem where they lived. Two-thirds of blacks (67%) said racial discrimination against blacks was a serious problem.

Would you join a peaceful parade, march, or picketing that favored equal rights for blacks? One-third of whites (36%) and two-thirds of blacks (68%) said yes in 1993.

Are you surprised by these findings?
What racial milestones do you think were influential in the mid 1990s?

How do attitudes in 1993 compare to attitudes now?

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Selma: Are you optimistic about race relations?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Selma
Michael Brown Jr before his death in Ferguson

Michael Brown in a Facebook photo a year before his death.

It’s about 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery, but the road to racial equality is much, much longer. Yesterday we looked at attitudes about race three decades after the 1965 Selma marches.

What are racial attitudes today?

One data point is the Department of Justice’s just-released report of its investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The Justice Department won’t bring charges against the police officer who shot and killed Brown, but its report documents deep and systematic racial bias in the Ferguson police department.

(The New York Times published a front-page news story on Wednesday. The Times also published an 86-page PDF of the Justice Department report on its website.)

What can we ascertain if we look at racial attitudes over time?

In 1964, 70% of blacks and 53% of whites felt that a solution to relations between the races would eventually be worked out, according to Gallup. This optimism declined over time, hitting a low point in 1996.

Since 1996, whites and blacks have slowly become more optimistic but have never reached 1964 levels. And, unlike 1964 when blacks were more optimistic than whites, since 1996 whites have almost always been more optimistic than blacks.

From 1964 to the present time, whites have always been more likely than blacks to say that “blacks have as good a chance as whites in your community to get any kind of job for which they are qualified.”

Whites and blacks see race relations differently, and always have.

How much longer will these differences continue?
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about race relations?

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Selma: Is the U.S. Justice Department more about justice—or politics?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Selma
2014 Ferguson Beyond Rally at Justice Department

MANY AMERICANS look to the U.S. Department of Justice for answers. This photograph shows a 2014 “Ferguson and Beyond” rally outside the department’s Washington D.C. headquarters. Protesters raised up a wide array of cases. Protest signs, from left, refer to: Michael Brown, who was killed by a policeman in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri; Amadou Diallo, who was killed by New York City policemen in 1999; and (referenced in a sign at right) Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being placed in a choke-hold by a New York City policeman. Photo of the demonstration by “Djembayz” was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for public use.

The third attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 was successful because the federal government provided protection. Thousands of U.S. army troops and military policemen were dispatched to protect the marchers. Today, can we still rely on federal institutions for protection?

This weekend is the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. We’ve discussed how Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most reviled public figure in America in his day, how he (and Lincoln) died for their values, what racial attitudes looked like in the mid 1990s, and contemporary black-white differences in optimism about race relations. Today, we consider attitudes about the U.S. Justice Department.

The Justice Department just issued a scathing indictment of the police in Ferguson, MO. It did not find enough evidence to bring charges against the white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teen.

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of the Justice Department? Americans are divided in their views, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey taken earlier this week. Focusing on voters, they find that half (48%) have a favorable impression, while 46% have an unfavorable view.

Is the Department of Justice more concerned with politics or justice when it conducts an independent investigation of a local crime? The majority of voters (56%) say the department is more concerned with politics. Only a third (34%) feel it is more concerned with making sure justice is done.

More than a third (38%) say that the Department of Justice is a threat to the legal rights of most Americans. Just half (50%) say it is a protector of those rights.

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of the Justice Department?
What does the legacy of the Selma marches mean to you?

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