In 1968, nearly a third of Americans said MLK brought his assassination on himself

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his status as a civil rights icon isn’t really in question. In recent polls, 85 percent of Americans say he made things better for black Americans, and nearly 70 percent say that his legacy remains relevant today.

But during his life, King faced the suspicion and outright animosity that a swath of America has often bestowed on protest leaders, especially those advocating against racial injustice.

Back in the 1960s, when King was actually leading protests, just 36 percent of white Americans thought he was helping “the Negro cause of civil rights,” according to historical polling data compiled by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. In a 1966 Gallup poll, more than 60 percent of the public rated King more negatively than positively.

RELATED: The scene of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination

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Scene of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination
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Scene of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination
TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04: Police carrying body of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after he was shot by assassin James Earl Ray. (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 4/4/1968-Memphis, TN: Police stand guard on balcony of motel in which Negro leader Dr. Martin Luther King was shot 4/4. King was felled by a single shot as he stood on balcony of his downtown motel.
Bloodstained balcony of Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by white sniper, James Earl Ray. (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
View of a nearby rooming house (on the left) where suspect James Earl Ray was believed to have fired the fatal shot that killed Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Daily News front page April, 5, 1968, Headline: MARTIN KING SHOT TO DEATH - Gunned Down in Memphis - A Man of Peace. In December 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then 35, accepted Nobel Peace Prize from Gunnar Jahn in Oslo, Norway. Last night, in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. King was shot to death as he stood on balcony of his hotel. He was there to lead garbage strike marches. Two men were arrested shortly after shooting. (Photo By: /NY Daily News via Getty Images)
An unidentified man stands outside the door of room 306 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, a few feet from where Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated earlier in the evening, Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. The photo was taken from a nearby rooming house where suspect James Earl Ray was believed to have fired the fatal shot. (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Simulated view through a gunsight of the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
(Original Caption) View of balcony on which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was standing when fatally shot April 4th as he leaned over railing to talk to friends outside the Lorraine Motel.
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After King was assassinated, two-thirds of Americans said their strongest reaction to his death had been sadness, anger, shame or fear, another survey found. Another 31 percent, however, said they “felt he brought it on himself.”

King’s convicted killer, James Earl Ray, received a flood of supportive letters while he awaited trial, the Los Angeles Times noted.

“King stirred up violence and caused many to lose their lives,” one Californian wrote Ray. “The FBI classified him as a trouble-maker. If you killed King, you did a good job, for he had it coming to him.”

Today, fewer than a tenth of black Americans, and 30 percent of the nation as a whole, say that most or all of the goals of the civil rights movement have been met.

See more of Roper’s collection of polling from 1986 here.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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