The legacy of John Lewis and the future of civil rights in America

July 25, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who died on July 17, was one of the civil rights movement’s most important leaders, but Americans say the improvements he brought about aren’t enough. Half of Americans in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll say race relations have improved since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but for many, including two-thirds of Black Americans (65%), racism remains a big problem. 

Two in five still view racism as a big problem (41%). About 20 percent more say racism was a big problem in the 1960s (61%). The Black Lives Matter protests have once again brought racism to public awareness in a new way, and more now see racism as a problem than did so in the recent past.  

An Economist/YouGov Poll from July 2009 found just one in five overall, and less than half of Black Americans (48%), described racism as a big problem then. More say that now. The 2009 poll was conducted just months after the Inauguration of the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama.  

Optimism about the state of race relations in America is more common among white Americans than among Black Americans. Today, white Americans are twice as likely as Black Americans to describe race relations in the United States as “good.” Still, large majorities in both races (66% of white Americans and 84% of Black Americans) continue to view race relations as bad. During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, even fewer said race relations were good.  

The perceived improvement since the 1960s is seen more by White Americans than by Black Americans. One in four Black Americans (27%) think that race relations are worse today than they were in the 1960s, though more (but by no means a majority) think they have improved. Fewer than one in five white Americans  (17%) say things have gotten worse. 

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As for the long-term future, there is hope. Few expect things will get worse, though many believe race relations will remain pretty much the same. White Americans are more likely than Black Americans to say race relations 60 years from now (as far in the future as the 1960’s are in the past today) will be better. 

By four to one, Americans of all ages and races believe that Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington (“I Have a Dream”) still has relevance today for their own generation. And there is general agreement that his dream has at least somewhat been realized.  

Americans recognize the role of protests bringing that change. Three in four believe that the civil rights protests led by Dr. King sped up the passage of civil rights legislation. Just 7 percent think the protests slowed down passage.  

John Lewis was a major part of those protests. After his death, Americans think of him positively. White Americans (41%) and Black American (61%) give Lewis a more favorable than unfavorable rating.  

Lewis frequently criticized President Donald Trump, so it should not be surprising that Trump supporters don’t like him. About one-third (37%) of those who say they will vote to re-elect the president this fall have an unfavorable opinion of Lewis, while a quarter (25%) are favorable. Republicans overall are closely divided (28% favorable, 28% unfavorable) in evaluating the late Democratic Congressman. 

Half of Americans (50%) say civil rights and civil liberties are very important to them, while one-third (36%) say it is a somewhat important issue. Black Americans are much more likely (77%) than white Americans (47%) and Hispanic Americans (40%) to say that civil rights are very important today. 

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov Poll 

MethodologyThis Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US adult citizens interviewed online between July 19 - 21, 2020. The approximate margin of error is 3.2 percentage points for the overall sample. Samples are weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. 

Image: Getty