A Lesson About Polls

The cause of civil rights has always faced tough public opinion data

If you find yourself playing pundit and citing current polling as proof that today’s protests against police violence will inevitably fail to advance civil rights, do yourself a favor: Pause and look back at polling from the last successful civil rights uprising in American history. 

Many fondly remember the successes of the mid-20th Century civil rights movement -- but the adversity and headwinds the movement faced are often elided in our history books. That can end up leaving the impression that most of the American public must have supported the peaceful protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights heroes. 

But that wasn’t the case. Here are some data points from back then:

- 1961: “Americans were asked whether tactics such as ‘sit-ins’ and demonstrations by the civil rights movement had helped or hurt the chances of racial integration in the South. More than half, 57 percent, said such demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience had hurt chances of integration.” - Gallup

- 1963: “A Gallup poll found that 78 percent of white people would leave their neighborhood if many black families moved in. When it comes to MLK’s march on Washington, 60% had an unfavorable view of the march.” - Cornell University’s Roper Center

- 1964: “Less than a year after (Dr. King’s) march, Americans were even more convinced that mass demonstrations harmed the cause, with 74 percent saying they felt these actions were detrimental to achieving racial equality and just 16 percent saying they were helping it.” - Gallup

- 1964: “A majority of white New Yorkers questioned here in the last month in a survey by The New York Times said they believed the Negro civil rights movement bad gone too far. While denying any deep-seated prejudice against Negroes, a large number of those questioned used the same terms to express their feelings. They spoke of Negroes’ receiving ‘everything on a silver platter’ and of ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites. More than one‐fourth of those who were interviewed said they had become more opposed to Negro aims during the last few months.” - New York Times

- 1965: “In the midst of the Cold War, a plurality of Americans believed that civil rights organizations had been infiltrated by communists, with almost a fifth of the country unsure as to whether or not they had been compromised.” - Cornell University’s Roper Center

The civil rights movement faced these steep odds, but kept organizing and protesting — and ultimately changed public opinion and passing landmark civil rights laws, despite the naysayers and the skeptics.

We don’t yet know whether today’s civil rights protests — or mantras like “defund the police” — will be similarly successful over the long-haul. There are certainly signs that the demonstrations are already creating meaningful change -- states and cities have been responding to protests by taking up police accountability initiatives and reconsidering police budgets. But again, we can’t know whether this will be a long-term trend, or a short fleeting burst of progress.

What we do know is that public opinion is not immovable, and it shouldn’t be used to justify maintaining or only mildly tweaking an unjust status quo. 

We also know that had civil rights organizers of the past been deterred by naysayers cynically weaponizing contemporaneous polling data, America may not have achieved any of the civil rights progress we so desperately needed. 


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