MORE than any other US leader, Abraham Lincoln believed in the autonomy and primacy of political ideas. This led him to his distinctive view of the nation's crisis of the 1850s - as one rooted in profound philosophical denial. The country had long suffered the presence of slavery. Now it was being urged ever more insistently to deny the very fact of its founding on an unambiguous ideal of human equality, and this it could not survive.
If, however, it could bring itself to reaffirm its founding value it would be saved - even if realizing that value were painfully slow.
In what was perhaps his greatest speech, delivered in Springfield, Ill., on June 26, 1857, Lincoln said of America's founders that ``they meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all ..., constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.''
Some of the country's leading figures in civil rights adopted Lincoln's view. Though earlier in his career Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century black rights leader, disagreed with this perspective, he later swung strongly to it.
In our own time Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is observed next Monday, argued forcefully that the overriding objective should be getting the nation to recognize ever more fully its founding idea.
How does that idea stand today? What movement has there been in American's recognition of the ideal of racial equality since the 1950s and '60s, when Martin Luther King was giving leadership to a renewed effort for civil rights?
A review of opinion surveys reminds us that the changes, if slow, have together been substantial. The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago has asked of the white majority a number of questions on equality in the same exact form over the past three decades.
In 1956, for example, just half the white public professed support for the ideal of integrated education. By 1968 the proportion had risen almost to three-fourths, and in 1985, when NORC stopped asking the question, it had climbed above 90 percent. Roughly 40 percent of whites rejected prohibitions against racial intermarriage in 1968, the year of Dr. King's death. Last year, more than 75 percent opposed them.
The idea that whites have a right to exclude blacks from their neighborhoods was opposed by only four in 10 in 1963, but by nearly six in 10 in 1977, and almost eight in 10 last year.
Some of the biggest shifts have occurred in the South, where whites long responded very differently to issues of racial equality than did their counterparts elsewhere.
In 1948, for example, segregation in public transportation was backed by over three-fourths of southern whites, compared to one-fifth in the Northeast, according to Gallup polls. That same year, when federal fair employment practice legislation was endorsed by about 55 percent of New England and the Middle Atlantic whites, it was supported by just 10 percent in the old Confederacy.
Since Martin Luther King's day, though, the South has slowly rejoined the nation. In 1972, the view that whites have a right to keep blacks from their neighborhoods was backed by a 13-point higher proportion in the South than nationally, according to an NORC survey (53 percent to 40 percent). In 1989, though, the gap was just five points (28 percent to 23 percent).
Only 52 percent of southern whites said in 1972 they would vote for a black person nominated by their party for president, even if they considered him qualified; 74 percent of whites nationally said they would vote for him. By 1989, however, the margin had largely disappeared: 72 percent of southern whites and 81 percent of all whites recognized the standard that a person shouldn't be barred by race from the presidency.
Movement toward a fuller acceptance of the ideal of racial equality is even more evident when one looks only at people who have come of age since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
NORC surveys show, for example, that support for prohibitions against racial intermarriage is now only one-third as high among whites in their twenties and thirties as among those in their late fifties and older. Similarly, the proportion claiming a right to exclude blacks from their neighborhoods is just half as great among persons 18 to 29 as among those over 55.
Looking back on his 40 years in survey research, Burns Roper has remarked that often the biggest shifts in public attitudes are displayed not in the answers to specific questions but in the changing substance of the questions themselves.
In 1940 Gallup asked respondents if they approved of proposed federal legislation against lynching, which would ``fine and imprison local police officers who fail to protect a prisoner from a lynch mob, and make a county in which a lynching occurs pay a fine up to $10,000 to the victim or his family.'' In 1964, NORC asked whether ``a restaurant owner should ... have to serve Negroes if he doesn't want to.'' In the 1990s surveys will be asking about affirmative action programs and other proposals for eradicating the legacy of Jim Crow.
Most of the data reviewed here involve professed adherence to a norm. Don't some people lie about some matters, retreating responses they believe to be ``socially acceptable''? Of course they do. But surely Lincoln was right in insisting that a steady rise in recognition of the proper norm is the essential mark of progress.
Survey data point to behavioral consequences in Americans' personal lives of the greater recognition of the ideal. In 1966, for example, 45 percent of whites told NORC interviewers that they had had ``a good friend who was a Negro.'' By 1981, 54 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll said that they knew at least one black person whom they considered ``a close personal friend,'' and in a 1989 ABC/Post poll the figure had climbed to 66 percent.
The latter survey also found 80 percent of blacks saying they had a least one close personal friend among whites, up from 69 percent in 1981. Whites and blacks alike were in 1989 far more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods that they had been two decades earlier.
And as they did at the end of the 1970s, both groups in 1989 looked back on the decade past and pronounced it one of racial progress.