ATLANTA — Having a black president hasn't exactly led Americans to believe their country has moved closer to the ideal of racial equality preached by Martin Luther King Jr., according to a new poll.
The AP-GfK poll found 77 percent of people interviewed say there has been significant progress toward King's dream, about the same percentage as felt that way in 2006, before Obama was elected. Just more than one in five, 22 percent, say they feel there has been "no significant progress" toward that dream.
On Monday, the nation will mark the 25th anniversary of the federal observance of King's birthday. The civil rights icon would have been 82.
On the heels of the post-racial sentiment that swept Obama into office in 2008, critics have emerged questioning the president's U.S. citizenship, mocking his Kenyan heritage, and criticizing his stance on health care reform as socialist and costly. Some say Obama's efforts to unify Americans ring hollow in a nation that is palpably more partisan and divided since he became president two years ago.
"The exuberance and thrill of seeing an African American elected to the presidency has been tempered by the outrageous claims that we've heard about him," said William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Rutgers University.
Real concerns that King fought for remain, even with a black president, he said.
"And the violent rhetoric we've seen directed towards (Obama) diminishes the initial sentiment that we've made great progress because of the election," he said.
The poll also reveals that more people plan to celebrate the federal holiday honoring King — 30 percent, compared to 23 percent who had such plans five years ago. That includes 46 percent of non-whites, 38 percent of college graduates, 36 percent who live in urban areas and 36 percent who attend religious services at least weekly, according to the poll.
Margaret Bertels, 58, a legal assistant from Berkeley, Calif., and a Democrat, said Obama's election was important symbolically. But in practical terms, she said, it has been difficult for the president himself to move the nation closer to King's dream.
"On the ground it has been a very hard situation for him to address," Bertels said.
Hugh Simpson, 57, of rural Butte Falls, Ore., who is white, said he will celebrate by flying his American flag and talking to his friends about King. He said he believes the country has clearly made progress since King's days, having elected a black president.
But he's not an Obama fan — he favors the tea party movement. In terms of racial equality, "I don't think we've had any great change in, like, two years," Simpson said.
Some communities in the South, including around Atlanta, where schools have been closed because of a snow and ice storm, have decided to make up one of the days on MLK Day, upsetting some African-American groups.
In 1994, Congress added community service as a focus of the federal holiday, and more than one million Americans are expected to participate in 13,000 projects around the country on the King Day of Service, said Patrick Corvington, head of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency charged with administering service projects on the King holiday.
"The focus on service has allowed for a different kind of conversation about Dr. King and what he was about," Corvington said. "It allows all people to connect with Dr. King in different ways."
The new poll also shows most of the nation in support of the King holiday. Three-quarters of those surveyed this year say King's birthday should be so honored, with 84 percent of non-white respondents believing so, compared to 68 percent of white respondents. Younger adults are also more apt to feel the birthday deserves the honor, as 81 percent among those under 50 years old supported the holiday, compared to 66 percent among those 50 to 64 and 62 percent among seniors.
King is the only American who was not a president honored with a federal holiday.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted January 5-10, 2010 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
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