A 90% Favorability Rating for Martin Luther King Jr. on His 90th Birthday

Seven in Ten Americans Consider that the Civil Rights Movement Made Things Better for the Country

The author(s)
  • Nicolas Boyon Senior Vice President and Ipsos Global Advisor Lead
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Washington, DC, January 18, 2019 —To mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ipsos explored attitudes of Americans toward Dr. King as well as 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% among all U.S. adults, including 98% among African Americans and 87% among non-Hispanic whites.

Three in four Americans (76%) 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% say it was too forceful and 11% not forceful enough. However, among African Americans, a larger proportion (24%) say it was not forceful enough.

Closely following King in popularity is Rosa Parks with 88% of Americans viewing her favorably. Among sports figures, Muhammad Ali (77%) has the highest favorability rating, surpassing Jesse Owens (57%) and Colin Kaepernick (41%). Other widely popular figures include Harriet Tubman (78%), Nelson Mandela (77%), Maya Angelou (66%), Frederick Douglass (58%), and Thurgood Marshall (58%).  

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% of whites do not know Wells, 69% Du Bois, and 44% 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% unfavorable among whites), Sharpton (53%), and Kaepernick (44%).

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%). Only 8% say it has made things worse, 14% say it has made no difference and 8% are not sure. Positive perceptions of the Civil Rights Movement are shared equally by whites and blacks (72% each).

In contrast, the Black Lives Matter movement is highly polarizing, with 39% of all U.S. adults surveyed saying it has made things better vs. 31% saying it has made things worse. Views on Black Lives Matter differ highly by race: 58% of black respondents say it has made things better, compared to 30% of whites. Opinions about Black Lives Matter also vary greatly by age, with adults age 18-34 overwhelmingly positive (54% better vs. 22% worse), compared to those over 55 who feel more negative (30% better vs. 36% worse).

Other movements most widely seen as having made the country better are the LGBTQ equal rights movement (46% vs. 23% worse), the #MeToo movement (45% vs. 22%), and the Labor Movement (42% vs. 11%). 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% better vs. 21% worse) and the Never Again/Anti-Gun Violence movement (30% vs. 24%). Public opinion is equally divided on Occupy Wall Street (19% better vs. 19% worse) and net-negative on the Tea Party movement (23% better vs. 30% worse)


About the Study

These are findings from an Ipsos poll conducted January 11 - 15, 2019. For the survey, a sample of roughly 1,235 adults age 18+ from the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii were interviewed online in English. The sample includes 787 non-Hispanic white and 281 African American respondents.

The sample for this study was randomly drawn from Ipsos’s online panel (see link below for more info on “Access Panels and Recruitment”), partner online panel sources, and “river” sampling (see link below for more info on the Ipsos “Ampario Overview” sample method) and does not rely on a population frame in the traditional sense. Ipsos uses fixed sample targets, unique to each study, in drawing sample. After a sample has been obtained from the Ipsos panel, Ipsos calibrates respondent characteristics to be representative of the U.S. Population using standard procedures such as raking-ratio adjustments. The source of these population targets is U.S. Census 2016 American Community Survey data. The sample drawn for this study reflects fixed sample targets on demographics. Post-hoc weights were made to the population characteristics on gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, and education.

Statistical margins of error are not applicable to online nonprobability sampling polls. All sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error and measurement error. Where figures do not sum to 100, this is due to the effects of rounding. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points for all respondents. Ipsos calculates a design effect (DEFF) for each study based on the variation of the weights, following the formula of Kish (1965). This study had a credibility interval adjusted for design effect of the following (n=1,235, DEFF=1.5, adjusted Confidence Interval=4.7.

The poll also has a credibility interval plus or minus 4.0 percentage points for white respondents and plus or minus 6.7 for African American respondents.

For more information on this news release, please contact:

Chris Jackson
Vice President, U.S.
Ipsos Public Affairs
+1 202 420-2025
[email protected]

Mallory Newall
Director, U.S.
Ipsos Public Affairs
+1 202 420-2014
[email protected]


About Ipsos Public Affairs

Ipsos Public Affairs is a non-partisan, objective, survey-based research practice made up of seasoned professionals. We conduct strategic research initiatives for a diverse number of American and international organizations, based not only on public opinion research, but elite stakeholder, corporate, and media opinion research.

Ipsos has media partnerships with the most prestigious news organizations around the world. Through our media partnerships, Ipsos Public Affairs is a leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and internationally. Ipsos Public Affairs is a member of the Ipsos Group, a leading global survey-based market research company. We provide boutique-style customer service and work closely with our clients, while also undertaking global research.

About Ipsos

Ipsos is an independent market research company controlled and managed by research professionals. Founded in France in 1975, Ipsos has grown into a worldwide research group with a strong presence in all key markets. Ipsos ranks fourth in the global research industry.
With offices in 88 countries, Ipsos delivers insightful expertise across five research specializations: brand, advertising and media; customer loyalty; marketing; public affairs research; and survey management.

Ipsos researchers assess market potential and interpret market trends. They develop and build brands. They help clients build long-term relationships with their customers. They test advertising and study audience responses to various media and they measure public opinion around the globe.

Ipsos has been listed on the Paris Stock Exchange since 1999 and generated global revenues of €1,780.5 million in 2017.

The author(s)
  • Nicolas Boyon Senior Vice President and Ipsos Global Advisor Lead

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