But it wasn’t always that way. The fact that King is now beloved and has a national holiday commemorating his birthday wasn’t something that obviously was going to happen during his lifetime.
This shows us that often the fight for civil rights is unpopular at the time, and it only becomes popular retrospectively.
But even before then, King was far from a universally liked person. In the middle of 1964, when Congress was in the midst of passing many landmark civil rights laws, King’s favorable rating was just 44%. His unfavorable rating was basically equal at 38%.
When Americans were asked which three Americans they had the least respect for in a 1964 Gallup poll, King came in second at 42%. This was barely less than the 47% registered by George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. Only 17% mentioned King’s name, when asked which three Americans they had the most respect for.
Perhaps even more revealing is that a lot of White Americans thought King was doing more harm than good for the fight for civil rights. In a 1966 Harris Poll, 50% of White Americans indicated that he was hurting the Civil Rights effort. A mere 36% said he was helping. King’s favorable rating among them was 27% in 1966.
Black Americans saw things very differently. The vast majority in 1963 thought his work for equal rights was moving at the right speed (71%) or not fast enough (21%) compared to 8% who believed it was happening too fast. In 1966, 84% of Black adults had a favorable view of him, while 4% had an unfavorable view.
Even in the immediate aftermath of his death, many Americans had a negative view of King. Nearly a third (31%) say he brought his 1968 assassination upon himself. Less than a majority (43%) said they were sad (38%) or angry (5%).
By the mid-1970s, views toward King became more positive. The vast majority (67%) of Americans believed the protest marches he led helped to speed up civil rights legislation.
A within the margin of error plurality (48%) indicated that they didn’t want it to be, as a nearly equal 47% said it should in an ABC News/Washington Post poll. It was only by the end of the year when most Americans (59%) favored the national holiday in a Harris poll.
The NFL decided to move the 1993 Super Bowl away from the state, as a result.
When all Americans were asked about whether they favored or opposed this move, just 25% favored it. The vast majority (63%) said they were opposed to moving the Super Bowl.
The move by the NFL had the intended effect. Voters in Arizona passed a law in 1992 to make King’s birthday a state holiday. The NFL put the 1996 Super Bowl in the state.
As the 20th century turned to the 21st, King’s legacy was cemented in the American mind. A near unanimous majority (89%) indicated he was a person they admired in 1999.
In 2011, 94% of Americans had a favorable view of him in Gallup polling. This included an 89% favorable rating among those ages 65 and older. The vast majority of whom were born in 1927 or later. Among that same group in 1966, King’s favorable rating was 41%.
In other words, King’s now uniform popularity isn’t only because older generations died out. People’s minds changed. King became a lot more popular among many people who didn’t like him when he was alive.