How America polled on civil rights 50 years ago today

Posted by PBS Newshour on

When civil rights activists led a bloody protest march in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 that is credited with helping to assure passage of the Voting Rights Act that year, civil rights was a top issue for the American public, but opinions about it were very mixed. Even so, America’s verdict on Selma was clear. In all, the protesters staged three marches that month, and polling showed the public clearly siding with the demonstrators, not with the state of Alabama.

A nationwide Gallup poll in February 1965 found 26 percent of Americans citing civil rights as a problem facing the nation, second only to the expanding war in Vietnam (cited by 29 percent). There was broad-based support for the war at this early stage in its history, but views about civil rights and integration were clearly mixed.

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On one hand, Americans continued to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at least in principle, but had concerns about its scope and implementation. A Gallup poll in October 1964 reported that the public approved of the new law by nearly two-to-one (58 percent to 31 percent). And in April 1965, Gallup found a whopping 76 percent in favor of a then-proposed equal rights voting law.

But while the public supported civil rights legislation conceptually, they expressed concerns about the pace of its implementation. Indeed, although most supported the new civil rights law soon after it was passed, a national Opinion Research Corporation poll showed 68 percent of Americans wanting to see moderation in its enforcement, with only 19 percent wanting vigorous enforcement of the new law.

In that light, it is not surprising that in early 1965, a Gallup poll found growing numbers of Americans saying that the Johnson administration was moving too fast overall on integration. In March, 34 percent held that view, and by May that sentiment rose to 45 percent, with only 14 percent expressing the view that it was not moving fast enough.

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Opinion about the pace of integration in May 1965 was dramatically different in the South compared with other parts of the country. By a margin of 61 percent to 21 percent, Southerners felt the government was moving too quickly, rather than about right. Outside the South, Americans were about evenly divided: About four-in-ten thought the pace was too fast and about the same percentage thought integration was occurring at about the right pace.

Gallup reported in February 1965 that, when asked about the Civil Rights Act specifically, 42 percent overall believed the federal government was moving too fast in guaranteeing “Negro” voting rights and the right of “Negroes” (the term used in the question) to be served in public places such as restaurants, hotels and theaters, while just 25 percent thought it was not moving fast enough.

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But despite all these reservations, views about what occurred in Selma were another matter. By a 48 percent to 21 percent margin, a Harris poll in May 1965 found its respondents saying they sided more with the civil rights groups involved than with the state of Alabama. Not unexpectedly, virtually all of the African-American respondents sided more with the demonstrators (95 percent), but the balance of opinion among whites was also clearly with them rather than with the state of Alabama (46 percent to 21 percent).

For more information about how contemporary Americans feel about achieving the goal of racial equality, see our full report.

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