50 years after MLK, civil rights goals still unmet

The memorial at the corner of LBJ Drive and MLK Drive will be the site of a bell-ringing service today at 5:30 p.m.  Bells will toll 39 times, once for each year of the slain civil rights leader’s life. Attendees are asked to bring bells. Daily Record photo by Denise Cathey

AP-NORC poll

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., only 1 in 10 African Americans think the United States has achieved all or most of the goals of the civil rights movement he led, according to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Three-quarters of African Americans said there has been little or no progress on fair treatment by police, and more than half answered the same about fair coverage by the media, political representation or equal economic opportunities.

Currently, things are steadily “going on a quick downward spiral,” said Stephanie Sutton, 42, a Silver Spring, Maryland, housewife who is black. “Inequality touches everything, from work, police, schools, education, income, houses.”

Even when it comes to voting rights — the high point for perceived progress for all of Americans in the poll — just 34 percent of blacks said there has been a lot of progress made toward equality. Another 29 percent said there has been at least some progress.

“We’re going backward to where we’re starting to see more black males mostly getting assaulted by police officers unjustly and stuff like that,” said Kyla Marshall, 28, of Lansing, Michigan, a state government worker who is black.

Americans overall were only slightly more optimistic. More than half said major progress has been made toward equal voting rights for African Americans, but just a quarter said there has been a lot of progress in achieving equal treatment by police or the criminal justice system. Among whites, 64 percent think there’s been a lot of progress and another 25 percent think there’s been minor progress on voting rights, while 28 percent think there’s been a lot of progress and 31 percent partial progress toward equality in the criminal justice system.

The poll found that 30 percent of American adults — 35 percent of whites and just 8 percent of blacks — said all or most of the goals of the 1960s civil rights movement have been achieved. Most of the remainder said partial progress has been achieved.

“I think the civil rights movement was phenomenal in forcing banks, political systems and educational systems” to change, said Grant Jay Walters, 53, of Hamburg, New York, who is white. “I think it absolutely achieved its goals. I do not think the civil rights movement can go in and change the hearts of men. There’s still a lot of racism in the communities and I’m not sure how you can ever make that go away.”

King was shot and killed April 4, 1968, outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, by segregationist James Earl Ray. King has since been acknowledged as an American hero for his quest for freedom, justice, equality and peace among all races.

The poll found only one area — voting rights — where a majority said a lot of progress has been made for racial equality since the civil rights movement. In total, 57 percent of Americans said there has been major progress on equal voting rights, though just 39 percent said there has been major progress on political representation for African Americans.

Close to half said there has been major progress on reducing segregation in public life — 47 percent — and equal access to good education — 48 percent. About a third said there has been at least some progress in those areas.

On the lowest end of the spectrum, just 23 percent said there has been a great deal of progress in fair treatment of blacks by police or the criminal justice system, and nearly half said there has been little to no progress in either of those areas.

Whites were more likely than blacks to think there has been progress in every area asked about in the poll.

Blacks are “claiming racism but I don’t see it myself,” said Tommy Romero, 47, of New Iberia, Louisiana, who is white. “They’re claiming it but it’s all about what they feel about the past, slavery and everything else. That’s how I feel.”

Romero said that things overall have gotten much better considering the racism of the past, especially in the South.

“Things were terrible back then,” he said. “The way minorities were treated, drinking at separate fountains, eating at separate restaurants, and sitting on certain parts of the bus, stuff like that, police beating on them, that just made no sense.”

In general, 54 percent of Republicans and just 14 percent of Democrats think most or all of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved. That ranged from 76 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats saying there has been a lot of progress on voting rights, to 43 percent of Republicans and 9 percent of Democrats saying there has been a lot of progress on fair treatment by police.

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