Selma: A snapshot of changing racial attitudes in America

Stevie Wonder Happy Birthday single

CHANGING RACIAL ATTITUDES: What were some of the watershed events between Selma and today? Prior to political scientist Sheldon Appleton’s report in 1995, the U.S. had declared a national holiday honoring Dr. King thanks in part to Stevie Wonder’s song, “Happy Birthday,” and America’s largest petition drive on a single issue, according to the Nation magazine. Even hold-out regions were honoring King by 1995. After losing a Super Bowl because of its refusal to celebrate King’s day, Arizona voters approved the holiday in 1992.

The Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 were watershed events in the civil rights movement. What were attitudes about racial discrimination between then and now?

We’ve got one snapshot from the mid 1990s, thanks to political scientist Sheldon Appleton who reported findings in 1995 from several national surveys. In 1993, large majorities of black and white Americans agreed that Martin Luther King, Jr. made things better for blacks in America. Large majorities also agreed that King was “just about right in his efforts to gain equal rights for blacks.”

However, black and white Americans disagreed strongly on a number of issues. Only 21% of whites said that racial discrimination was the reason why blacks had worse housing, jobs, and income compared to whites. About 44% of blacks attributed these inequalities to discrimination.

Even bigger differences appeared when evaluating the extent of racial discrimination against blacks in general. Less than one-third of whites (31%) said racial discrimination against blacks was a serious problem where they lived. Two-thirds of blacks (67%) said racial discrimination against blacks was a serious problem.

Would you join a peaceful parade, march, or picketing that favored equal rights for blacks? One-third of whites (36%) and two-thirds of blacks (68%) said yes in 1993.

Are you surprised by these findings?
What racial milestones do you think were influential in the mid 1990s?

How do attitudes in 1993 compare to attitudes now?

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Selma: Did King die for his values? What about Lincoln?

Lincoln's funeral along Pennsylvania Avenue 1865

Famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady took many photos of Abraham Lincoln and he documented the president’s funeral as well. This photograph, taken from a rooftop, shows Lincoln’s funeral procession along Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. on April 19, 1865. Crowds gathered all along the route both on the street and on rooftops. Lincoln’s hearse was moving from the funeral held at the White House to the U.S. Capitol where his body lay in state before traveling by train to Springfield, Illinois, for burial. (From the collection of the Library of Congress; available for public use.)


Yesterday I was interviewed by the Voice of America network for its broadcast to North Korea. The subject was my latest book, United America, which documents the 10 core values that Americans share. What do you think the North Koreans reaction will be?

The interviewer’s last question was the most intriguing: “Is there any notable person who sacrificed himself or herself to protect these values?”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was my immediate response, especially since this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. King held a mirror up to America, showing the nation where we did not live up to our core values of freedom of expression, equality of opportunities, respect for people of different races and religion, and more. At the time of his death, however, he was the most reviled public figure in America, as shown in public opinion polls (see Monday’s column).

King died for the values he defended. James Earl Ray was his convicted killer, though Ray recanted his confession of guilt. Some claimed a government conspiracy, a charge that has never been fully proven or disproven. In 2027, secret FBI documents about the assassination will be released.

Lincoln was also killed for his values. As Lincoln authority Duncan Newcomer explained, “Historians tell us that John Wilkes Booth became the Confederate Killer because he had heard Lincoln’s recent speech on reconstruction and believed it meant what we now would call racial integration. Booth’s fury at the mere idea of equal association and legal status with blacks pushed him from kidnapping to murder, and from plan to impetuosity.”

What notable person would you add to the list of those who died defending American values?
How do you think the North Koreans will react to my message of unity around core values?

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Selma: Did Martin Luther King, Jr. love America?

Still from Selma-the-Movie

CARE TO READ MORE? Film reviewer Edward McNulty gave the movie “Selma” 5 out of 5 stars. Click the photo to read McNulty’s entire review.

This weekend begins the 50th anniversary of the historic Selma to Montgomery marches. I was just a kid then, but I remember the horrific images of Bloody Sunday—the 7th of March, 1965—when hundreds of marchers were stopped, beaten, and tear-gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police and county posse. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the next two marches, the last one making it to Montgomery under federal protection.

All week we’ll discuss the marches and their effects, but today I want to ask this: Did MLK love America?

I raise this question in part because of recent claims that Obama doesn’t love America. It’s ironic that his patriotism has been called into question on the anniversary of the Selma marches. It began when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a speech that the president “doesn’t love America.” Overall, about a third of all Americans (35%) say Obama doesn’t love America, according to a poll. Republicans are much more likely to say Obama doesn’t love America, while the vast majority of Democrats (85%) say he does.

So, what about Dr. King? Did he love America? The answer depends more on when you ask than who you ask.

In the 1960s, King was one of the most hated figures in America, according to public opinion polls at the time. “A number of survey items asked about King in the mid-sixties show him more reviled than revered,” wrote political scientist Sheldon Appleton in 1995. In fact, King was “one of the most disliked American figures in the age of public opinion polling.”

For example, consider the results from a survey technique called the scalometer. This technique presents a respondent with a 10-point scale ranging from +5 to -5. In 1966, 41% of Americans rated King -5. Almost seven of ten Americans (68%) gave negative ratings.

Twenty years later, a huge shift in public opinion took place. In 1987, 76% of Americans gave King a favorable rating. This favorable rating has held firm. In 2013, for example, a poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 80% of Americans had a favorable view of the great civil rights leader. Almost half had a very favorable view.

I have no doubts that King loved America, and that Obama loves America. They were what I call “critical patriots” in my recent book United America. They see what America should be and can be—and want to the nation to live up to its ideals.

What’s your opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Did he love America?
Does the president?

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Kids & Success: Are the Three Rs still important today?

1880 Winslow Homer painting The Country School

THE THREE R’s: They go way back to the 19th century. This is Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “The Country School.”

All parents want their children to do well in life, but parents are often unsure of the best way for their kids to get ahead. There’s no shortage of advice.

How valid is the traditional view that getting ahead depends on focusing on the Three Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic?

This week, we’ve “crowd sourced” opinions about kids and success, drawing on a new survey by the Pew Research Center. They asked about ten skills: art, athletic, communication, logic, math, music, reading¸ science, teamwork, and writing. We learned that communication is considered the most important skill, that many Americans don’t think science so important, how music may be the key skill, and how much Americans dislike standardized testing. Today, we consider the age-old focus on the “the basics.”

The phrase “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic” is old. It’s attributed to Sir William Curtis, a member of the British Parliament, in the early 1800s. It’s a phrase that’s stuck with us for over two centuries.

The Three Rs are still valid today. Communication, reading, and math are the top three of ten skills, according to Pew’s survey, and writing is fifth. That covers the Three Rs.

What’s in 4th place, you may ask? Teamwork. This is the modernized version of the basic skills. Every kid still needs the Three Rs, but they also need to know how to work in teams.

How important do you think the Three Rs are today?
Would you put teamwork up with them?

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Kids & Success: Are standardized tests the key?

Standardized testing

Filling in bubbles on a standardized test. Photo by Onder Wijsgek, released for public use under Creative Commons.

Standardized testing is a hotly debated approach to making sure our children have the skills they need to succeed in life. By holding students, teachers, and schools accountable to rigorous standards, everyone will be motivated to make sure our kids learn what they need to get ahead. Do you support or oppose standardized testing?

So far this week, we’ve discussed Americans’ views on the specific skills our kids need—everything from art and athletics to music, math and science. Today, we consider one of the methods for motivating the acquisition of skills: standardized testing.

The majority of Americans (52%) say that there is “too much” emphasis on standardized testing, according to a new Rasmussen Reports poll, with 17% saying there isn’t enough emphasis. Only 16% say the balance is about right. (And 15% were not sure.)

A majority of Americans (56%) also say that student scores on standardized tests should be the main way to determine how well a school is performing. About one-quarter (27%) say it should be.

And, a large majority of Americans (69%) feel that standardized testing promotes “teaching to the test,” which, by implication means that our students are learning how to take tests, not learning the skills they need.

Do you believe there is too much or too little emphasis on standardized testing?
Do you support or oppose standardized testing?

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Kids & Success: Is music the key skill?

Richard Sheridan of Menlo

INTRIGUED BY RICHARD SHERIDAN AND MENLO? Click on Richard’s photo to learn more about the unusual culture that fuels this highly successful business.

Could music be the key skill for our children to be successful in today’s world? You may think I’m being facetious, but music could be the key to success as a software programmer or designer. Keep reading to find out why.

If you’re skeptical, I don’t blame you. Most Americans say that music is a pretty unimportant skill in today’s world.
Of the ten skills that Pew asked about in a recent survey, music ranks second to last place. Only 24% of Americans say that music is among the most important skill for our kids to get ahead in today’s world.

Americans with a high school degree or less place music in last place; those with at least a college degree give it 7th place. There are some minor differences of opinion by race. Black and Hispanic Americans are slightly more likely than whites to say music is a key skill.

With such a consensus against music as a key skill, why would I claim that it could be?

It turns out that many software programmers, designers, and engineers have a background in music. I learned this from Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, an innovative software development firm in Ann Arbor, MI. A musical background is so common that in interviews he routinely asks, “What musical instrument did you play?” The reply is usually astonishment at the question, followed by the name of instrument.

It’s easy to see why music is an important skill for a programmer or designer. You have to be precise. You have to be able to focus on minute details and understand how many different parts fit together. You need a good sense of the big picture—how the entire orchestration works and unfolds over time. These are good skills in music—and in technology.

If you have a musical background, has it been helpful for you?
Could music be one of the underappreciated skills for success today’s world?

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Kids & Success: Who needs science? (And, a word from Morgan Freeman)

Still from FIRST robotics video with Morgan FreemanThe U.S. continues to lag behind other countries when it comes to math and science. Today, I’m going to show you an inspiring 3-minute video made with Morgan Freeman to promote one strategy for changing that situation.

But the larger question I hope you will discuss with friends this week is: How can we close the gap when many Americans don’t think math and science are the keys to success?

When it comes to mathematics, the average scores for American 15-year-olds on standardized tests are significantly lower than the scores of their age peers in 28 countries, according to recent data. Those 28 include a number of Asian and European nations, plus Canada. The American kids scored about the same as nine other nations, including Norway, Portugal, Italy and Hungary. Twenty-six countries have lower scores, including Bulgaria, Tunisia and Peru.

American 15-year-olds do a little better in science, ranking behind 21 countries and tied with 13 more.

We hear a lot about the need to improve math and science, but science is ranked as the 7th most important skill to succeed out of the 10 skill areas asked about and that we listed yesterday in Part 1 of this series. Math is ranked third after communication and reading.

Higher education correlates with a lower emphasis on science. Americans with at least a college degree put science in the #7 spot. Americans with a high school degree (or less) ranked science much higher, given it the #3 position.

Do you think kids need science to succeed in today’s world?
Are you surprised to learn that Americans with more formal education place less emphasis on science as a key to success?

Take a look at this 3-minute video featuring Morgan Freeman talking about the FIRST robotics program:

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