Ronald Reagan signed the legislation making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday in November 1983. In January that year, public opinion was divided, with 47 percent in favor of the holiday and 48 percent opposed in an ABC News/Washington Post poll. In an October 1983 Harris poll, however, 59 percent supported it.
• In commenting on the 1983 poll, Lou Harris wrote that in the 1960s, when King was leading marches to desegregate public facilities and to press for guarantees of equal rights in employment, “a substantial 71-18 percent majority nationwide thought blacks were trying to move ‘too fast.’” In the 1983 poll, he said, 22 percent gave that response while another 21 percent said they were moving too slowly.
• In an August 2011 Gallup poll, 50 percent nationally said that the civil rights situation for blacks had improved greatly over their lifetime and another 39 percent said it had improved somewhat. Black responses were 29 and 56 percent, respectively.
• In 1958, when Gallup first asked people if they would vote for a black for president, 37 percent of whites said they would. In 1983, around eight in ten whites gave that response. When Gallup asked a similar question in summer 2011, a nearly unanimous 95 percent nationally said they would. Today, there is more resistance to a hypothetical Mormon candidate than a hypothetical black one.
• There is no indication from current polls that race relations will be an issue in the 2012 election. But an appeal to vote again for the first African American president could be effective. It’s hard to calculate such an effect, but poll responses from early 2009 provide a possible clue. A third called Obama’s inauguration “the most historic” the nation had ever had and another 45 percent called it “one of the most historic.”
• Black turnout will be important to Obama’s reelection. The black vote remains one of the few truly monolithic votes in American politics, with eight in ten or more blacks voting for the Democratic candidate for president since the 1960s. The black vote was especially important to Obama in 2008, when blacks’ share of the electorate rose a few percentage points to 13 percent, an impressive feat for a group whose overall share of the population is not growing. In the 2010 midterms, black turnout declined, hurting Democratic fortunes. In Gallup’s 2011 weekly tracking, Obama’s approval rating among blacks has rarely slipped below 80 percent.
• In November 2011, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal asked people whether the Obama administration had lived up to expectations or fallen short in a dozen different areas. In only two areas—the war in Iraq and improving race relations—did more people say he had lived up to expectations than fallen short. Forty-five percent said he had lived up to expectations on race relations, while 39 percent said he had fallen short. Thirty-five percent told Gallup that as a result of Obama’s presidency, race relations had become better. Twenty-three percent said worse. When asked about the years ahead, 52 percent said relations would be better as a result of the Obama presidency, and 11 percent worse.