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 YouGov.com 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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