Has the Civil Rights Movement Overcome?

by Jack Ludwig, Senior Staff Writer

Although most Americans acknowledge the long strides made in the struggle for civil rights over the past 50 years, many still feel that the United States has fallen short of the goals set forth by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. A recent Gallup Poll on the state of civil rights in the nation, sponsored by The American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR)*, shows that while a large majority of Americans feel the civil rights movement was very important for the United States in the past, fewer --although still a majority -- see the civil rights movement as important to the country's future.

Americans are closely divided between those who feel that "all" (6%) or "most" (44%) of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved and those who feel that "only some" (45%) or "almost none" (3%) of these goals have been achieved. Opinions on this question divide sharply along racial and ethnic lines. While a majority of whites (56%) feel that all or most of the civil rights movement's goals have been achieved, only about two in five Hispanics (38%), and one in five blacks (21%) feel this way. 

A solid majority of all Americans -- 81% -- feel that the civil rights movement was either "extremely" or "very" important to the United States in the past, but black adults are far more likely than whites to feel that the movement was extremely or very important (92% of blacks vs. 79% of whites). Thinking ahead to the future, 58% of whites think that the civil rights movement will be extremely or very important for the United States, while 87% of blacks think so. Seventy-seven percent of Hispanics believe the movement was important in the past, and nearly as many (74%) believe it will be important in the future.

Most Americans -- including majorities of blacks, whites, and Hispanics -- believe that the civil rights movement is broadly beneficial to all Americans, not just racial and ethnic minorities. Although a majority of both white adults and black adults view the civil rights movement as currently beneficial to all of American society, blacks are more likely than whites to hold this belief (57% of whites vs. 79% of blacks). Just over two-thirds (68%) of Hispanics feel that the civil rights movement benefits everyone. Whites are twice as likely as either blacks or Hispanics to contend that the movement benefits only blacks and other ethnic minorities (26% of whites, 13% of blacks, and 12% of Hispanics), and whites and Hispanics are more likely than blacks to think that the movement benefits blacks only (14% of whites, 5% of blacks, and 15% of Hispanics).

Bottom Line

On July 2 of this year, the United States will celebrate a key milestone in the fight for civil rights -- the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act states:

"To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes."  

While the goals of the law are clear, unequal treatment of blacks and other minorities continues to be an issue in American society 40 years after its enactment. While Americans believe that important progress has been made, black and Hispanic minorities still feel discriminated against in daily life, in many of the settings detailed in the Civil Rights Act.

*The AARP/Gallup Poll results are based on telephone interviews with 2,002 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted between Nov. 11 – Dec. 14, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the 446 national adults who identify as African American/black  -- but not Hispanic, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±8.5 percentage points.

For results based on the 915 national adults who identify as white -- but not Hispanic, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6.7 percentage points.

For results based on the 551 national adults who identify as Hispanic -- including those who identify as white or black or other, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6.2 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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