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King's dream elusive on eve of 40th anniversary of death
Scripps Howard News Service


March 25, 2008

In a year in which an African American has a good chance of being elected president, only 3 percent of Americans believe that Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind society has been achieved.

As the country pauses to recall the 40th anniversary of King's assassination in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, a survey conducted by Ohio University and Scripps Howard News Service shows that 39 percent of black Americans say the country has "a long way to go" toward achieving that dream, compared to just 20 percent of white respondents.

The survey also found that while 52 percent of respondents said King had a "great influence" and 66 percent said the civil rights movement is still relevant, only 10 percent said they speak frequently about King.

The survey of 1,012 respondents focused on King and his legacy. Among the survey's findings:

- Sixty-two percent of younger Americans (ages 18-24) think King has a "great influence" on daily life in America, more so than any other age category.

- Black respondents (75 percent) suggest King has a "great influence" on daily life in America much more than white respondents (47 percent), Hispanics (63 percent) or Asian-Americans (40 percent).

- More African-Americans than white respondents think Memphis' image was harmed by the 1968 assassination, but large majorities of both groups believe the city's reputation was not harmed at all.

Overall, about 12 percent said the city's reputation suffered as the venue of the killing while 75 percent said it had not. The remainder were undecided.

By race, however, more than a fifth of African Americans surveyed thought the city's reputation suffered, while less than a tenth of white respondents did.

Dorothy Patton, 79, a former domestic worker in Lowndes County, Ala., now living in Detroit, said Memphis had a reputation, but that she has returned several times for church revivals, and would again. An African American, she remembers the breaking news of April 4, 1968, but said she doesn't hold it against Memphis.

Similarly, Marvin W. Hunter, 52, of Sandusky, Ohio, told the survey questioners that he had felt in the past that the city's image was harmed but has since reconsidered.

"I'm a God-fearing man. Martin Luther King to me was a prophet. Once he came to do God's work and his work was finished, God called him home," said Hunter, also an African American. "If it wouldn't have been Memphis, it would have been someplace else. When God's getting ready for you, it doesn't matter where you are."

Overall, only 3 percent of respondents said King's dream has been achieved, while 18 percent said the country has come very close, 50 percent said some progress has been made and 23 percent said there's "a long way to go." The remainder didn't know or didn't answer.

The Feb. 10-28 survey sliced and diced respondents by race, religious affiliation, region, level of urban or rural population density, educational attainment, party identification and place on the political spectrum from very conservative to very liberal.

It found that more suburbanites (24 percent) believe the U.S. as a country has come "very close" to achieving King's dream than any other demographic (large city, small city or rural residents) and that fewer suburbanites (14 percent) thought it has "a long way to go."

By comparison, 15 percent of respondents from large cities and 16 percent from small cities felt the country is "very close" to achieving the dream while 27 percent and 25 percent, respectively, still think the country has "a long way to go."

The survey also found that the lowest-income respondents talk more about King than any other income sub-division. Of those with household incomes below $10,000, 19 percent speak "frequently" about King, while just 4 percent of those with household incomes between $80,000 and $100,000 do.

In terms of party identification, 45 percent of strong Democrats and leaning Democrats said we have a "long way to go" to achieving King's dream. By contrast, 29 percent of strong Republicans or leaning Republicans felt that way.

Midwesterners, by comparison with other regions, were the most skeptical that King's dream has been achieved (2 percent) and had the highest percentage thinking we have "a long way to go" (26 percent).

The survey was conducted by telephone under the supervision of Robert Owens, operations manager of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. The co-directors of the center are Jerry Miller and Ani Ruhil. Guido H. Stempel III, distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio University, also assisted the project. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.


Bartholomew Sullivan writes for the Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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