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Gallup Vault: 50 Years Ago, Was U.S. a "Sick Society"?
Gallup Vault

Gallup Vault: 50 Years Ago, Was U.S. a "Sick Society"?

In June 1968, Gallup asked Americans to react to growing criticism that the U.S. had become a "sick society." Just over a third of adults, 36%, thought this description was apt. However, blacks' agreement approached 50%, well exceeding whites' 35%.

Americans' Reaction to "Sick Society" Charge in 1968
Some people are calling this country a "sick society." Do you agree or disagree with them?
Agree Disagree No opinion
% % %
U.S. adults 36 58 6
Black 48 43 9
White 35 60 5
College trained 30 67 3
High school 37 58 5
Grade school 39 52 9
Presidential Vote Preference
George Wallace 42 51 7
Richard Nixon 36 61 3
Hubert Humphrey 32 61 7
Gallup, June 13-18, 1968

The debate over a "sick society" that year arose after the back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June. But it was King himself who sparked the term in an allusion to societal racism and violence. The day before he was killed, he delivered his famous "mountaintop" speech, saying, "The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around."

The next week, the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The murder of Dr. King should show us what we should have seen long ago. We are a sick society that has fallen far short of what we claim to be." The phrase snowballed from there, finding its way into numerous newspaper and magazine editorials, as well as a speech by Billy Graham.

In the original July 3, 1968, news release, George Gallup wrote, "Little difference is found between the views of men and women, by age groups, or between churchgoers and non-churchgoers. Marked differences, on the other hand, are found in terms of educational background and race."

Paradoxically, agreement was also somewhat higher among adults who supported the avowed segregationist George Wallace for president (42%) than among those backing Richard Nixon (36%) or Hubert Humphrey (32%). Apparently different people saw different meaning in the term "sick."

For the most part, however, those agreeing the nation was sick seemed in tune with King's message. The Gallup news release lists the following major reasons given by these respondents for their view.

  1. The amount of rioting, killing, crime

  2. Lack of sufficient law enforcement

  3. Laxity of the courts

  4. People are too selfish

  5. Not enough individual initiative

  6. Poor upbringing

  7. A breakdown in morals

  8. A turning away from religion

In the words of a female respondent, "There are too many uncalled for, brutal things happening these days."

The Gallup news article also listed the following major reasons given by those who disagreed that American society was sick:

  1. Only a small number are to blame

  2. Too much publicity is given to crime

  3. Society today is no worse than in the earlier years

  4. The U.S. is no worse in this respect than other countries

  5. Our society is not "sick," but confused

One California respondent summed up the majority view this way: "You can't judge a nation by a few individuals who make headlines."


Read more about Gallup polling on race relations.

View the original 1968 Gallup news release on the sick society label.

Read more from the Gallup Vault.

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