By Andrew Kohut
When civil rights activists led a bloody protest march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, that is credited with helping to assure passage of the Voting Rights Act that year, civil rights was a top issue for the American public, but opinions about it were very mixed. Even so, America’s verdict on Selma was clear. In all, the protesters staged three marches that month, and polling showed the public clearly siding with the demonstrators, not with the state of Alabama.
A nationwide Gallup poll in February 1965 found 26% of Americans citing civil rights as a problem facing the nation, second only to the expanding war in Vietnam (cited by 29%). There was broad-based support for the war at this early stage in its history, but views about civil rights and integration were clearly mixed.
On one hand, Americans continued to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at least in principle, but had concerns about its scope and implementation. A Gallup poll in October 1964 reported that the public approved of the new law by nearly two-to-one (58% to 31%). And in April 1965, Gallup found a whopping 76% in favor of a then-proposed equal rights voting law.
But while the public supported civil rights legislation conceptually, they expressed concerns about the pace of its implementation. Indeed, although most supported the new civil rights law soon after it was passed, a national Opinion Research Corporation poll showed 68% of Americans wanting to see moderation in its enforcement, with only 19% wanting vigorous enforcement of the new law.