Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 90 on January 15th. As Americans observe his birthday on the January 21st federal holiday, he still has near-universal appeal. Overall, 90 percent of Americans view King favorably, according to a fresh Ipsos poll.
The civil rights leader’s enduring favorability highlights how his reputation over time has changed. At the same time, looking at the underlying demographics in how Americans today perceive King and other activists also reveals how Americans are polarized and why companies must take care as they take a stand on social and cultural issues.
Understanding this polarization is ever more critical for communicators, says Nicolas Boyon, senior vice president of opinion polling at Ipsos. He says it’s important for companies to be aware of their audiences’ psyches when it comes to aligning or dis-aligning with public figures.
For example, King became more popular in the years after his death in 1968. Back in 1966, 28 percent of white Americans viewed him favorably, according to an oft-cited Gallup poll. By 1987, those numbers flipped, with 76 percent of white Americans viewing him favorably. Younger respondents in both polls viewed King more positively than did their older peers.
Today, 87 percent of non-Hispanic whites view King favorably, compared to 93 percent of blacks, in the Ipsos poll. While the Ipsos poll can’t compare exactly to earlier ones, it does offer a directional comparison. Among its respondents who gave King the highest ratings, 51 percent of non-Hispanic whites view him very favorably, compared to 80 percent of black respondents. By party, 71 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Independents have a very favorable perception of King compared to 45 percent of Republicans.
What’s driving the overwhelming positivity on King today compared to his much lower favorability in 1966 is “the fact that Martin Luther King has been lionized in death,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.
“The fact that he was engaging in protests in the first place he was perceived to be radical,” she says. “With hindsight of history there are those who might compare Martin Luther King to the black nationalist movements that followed the nonviolent phase of the civil rights movement. He’s perceived wrongly as being timid and not terribly radical, and as a result he’s viewed as safe in comparison.”
Looking back at King’s tone and message about equal rights for blacks, the clear majority of Ipsos poll respondents (76 percent) say it was just about right. Yet three times as many black than white respondents say he wasn’t forceful enough.
“It could be they don’t think he was radical enough,” says Gillespie. “It could also be a recognition that for all of the accomplishments of the second wave of the civil rights movement, King’s efforts only partially advanced blacks on the journey to full civil rights.” Given that current movements like Black Lives Matter are ongoing, “We don’t know how they’re going to be perceived 20 to 30 years from now,” she adds.
Indeed, compared to other social movements covered in the survey, the civil rights movement of the 1960s is more widely seen as having made things better (70 percent). It is also the least polarized with no gap between non-Hispanic whites and blacks and a 7-point gap between Democrats and Republicans. Black Lives Matter comes in fifth overall with 39 percent saying it has made things better, but with higher polarization: there is a 39-point difference between the percentages of Democrats and Republicans who have a positive assessment of its impact. The divide between blacks and non-Hispanic whites is 28 points.
What increasing diversity and polarization mean for businesses
Age is another factor in understanding demographic differences on socio-political movements. Boyon says younger people more than their elders tend to have more positive views of figures and movements that promote and fight for social or economic equality, ranging from the Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and LGBTQ equal rights movements to Occupy Wall Street.
What’s different now is the makeup of Millennials as a group is more diverse than in older generations. “The proportion of non-Hispanic whites among Millennials is notably lower than among Boomers. Millennials are also more likely to identify or know someone who identifies as LGBTQ,” Boyon says.
Ipsos also asked Americans about the favorability of several people associated with civil rights past and present. King rated highest, followed by Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali. A contemporary figure, football player Colin Kaepernick has become a symbol of protest against police brutality against blacks by kneeling to the American flag. He was 12th in overall favorability. Like King was in the 1960s, Kaepernick is a highly polarizing personality. His favorability ratings show a 48-point difference between Democrats and Republicans and a 49-point gulf between white non-Hispanics and blacks. By age, the percentage of Millennials who favor the football player is 11 points higher than among GenX-ers and 20 points higher than Baby Boomers.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s awareness
It’s important to note how general awareness factors into favorability ratings. “We see this in how there are a lot of historical figures that are very important to African Americans, but unknown to many white Americans,” Boyon says.
For example, late abolitionist statesman Frederick Douglass is unknown to 44 percent of non-Hispanic whites, but only to 5 percent of blacks in the Ipsos poll. Late journalist and co-founder of the NAACP Ida B. Wells is known to 73 percent of non-Hispanic whites compared to 32 percent of blacks. By contrast, Martin Luther King is unknown to just 6 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 1 percent of blacks.
As companies consider whether and how they will take part with movements and their leading figures, the key is context, says Trent Ross, chief research officer for Ipsos Corporate Reputation. He says that corporate communicators say their consumers expect their companies to take a stand and there’s a lot of benefit in doing so, but there’s a huge amount of risk.
“When we talk to companies about social purpose, we advise them to pick something that aligns with their core business capabilities plus business values,” he says. “Not only must it be authentic to who they are, but it has to be in line with people’s perceptions. If you try to glom on the movement of the moment, you expose yourself to much more risk.”
For example, while Nike has seen a strong short-term payoff in making Colin Kaepernick the face of the brand, no one can predict how it will play in the long term.
“I don’t know if most companies have that luxury of time,” says Ross. Similarly, he says leaders who take a stand are also taking a risk — even though few CEOs are true household names.
“You risk becoming known for only that one thing because people don’t know you for anything else,” he says. “By better understanding stakeholder expectations, companies can more appropriately align social purpose and have the greatest societal impact.”