Aug 10, 2023 - Politics & Policy

MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech fading from memory

Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

The percentage of Americans who say they've read or heard a great deal about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech decreases among younger generations of adults, a new survey finds.

Why it matters: This month marks the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The Pew Research Center survey comes amid a push by conservatives to limit discussions of race in schools and workplaces.

Zoom in: Adults 65 and older are the most likely to say they've heard or read about King's speech; 68% said so. These people — the vast majority of them Baby Boomers— were alive when King gave the speech.

  • The percentage declines with every subsequent age group and generation. About 53% of those 18 to 29 said they've heard or read a great deal about King's speech.
  • About 16% of those young adults said they hadn't heard much or anything about the speech — by far the largest percentage of any age group.

Zoom out: Knowledge about the speech also varies by race and ethnicity. About 80% of Black respondents said they knew a great deal or a fair amount about it, compared with 60% of whites surveyed.

  • Only 49% of Latinos and 41% of Asian Americans said so.

Overall, most U.S. adults (60%) said they knew about the speech.

The big picture: King's "Dream" speech envisions a colorblind country that lives up to the promises made in its founding documents about equality.

  • King also mentioned how police brutality and systemic poverty was hurting African Americans.
  • He called for a future where "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners" would "sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
  • It's widely viewed as one of history's greatest speeches and was a centerpiece of the civil rights movement in the U.S.

Yes, but: Four years after his speech, King told NBC News: "I must confess, that dream that I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare." He cited persistent discrimination, poverty and the Vietnam War as reasons for his dismay.

Why they're saying: It's not a surprise that fewer younger Americans say they know a lot about the speech as the years pass, Juliana Horowitz, the author of the survey's report, told Axios.

  • "The differences between those groups in the middle aren't significant, so we can't necessarily tell if it's like steady progression or not."
  • "But it's definitely the case that when you compare the big gap between the older group and the younger."

Between the lines: Six decades out, King's quotes from speech often are misused across the political spectrum, Hajar Yazdiha, author of the forthcoming book "The Struggle for the People's King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement," tells Axios.

  • "What's really interesting about colorblindness is that it sounds perfect. In theory. But in reality, colorblindness is a way to obfuscate systemic inequality," said Yazdiha, a USC sociologist.

The intrigue: The survey's report included quotes from respondents who gave contradictory statements about King's beliefs.

  • One white respondent said King would have opposed reparations for the descendants of Black enslaved people, while a Black respondent said he would have supported it.
  • In his last sermon at the Washington National Cathedral just days before his assassination, King made a case for reparations.
  • "There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself … But they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years."

What's next: The battle against critical race theory, often conflated with schools' teachings on systemic racism, continues as the 2024 election nears.

  • Some books about King already have been banned, amid a conservative backlash against schools' efforts to tell American history from diverse viewpoints.

Methodology: The Pew Research Center survey of 5,073 U.S. adults was conducted April 10-16, 2023, using the Center's American Trends Panel.

  • The margin of sampling error is +/- 1.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample.
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