Stevie Wonder Not Only Crafted A Hit Song With His Dr. King Birthday Tribute, He Also Inspired A Movement
Wonder and Coretta Scott King presented a petition to the speaker of the House bearing more than six million signatures of support for a national holiday honoring Dr. King.
January 18, 2021 at 7:08 pm
“I wish you luck,” Wonder recalled Scott King replied. “We're in a time where I don't think it's going to happen."
In his dream, Wonder said he heard the song, which would later become the incredibly popular, "Happy Birthday" song on his Hotter Than July album. He saw people marching and holding signs and a petition that would make King's birthday a national holiday, he told Anderson Cooper in a 2011 interview.
Wonder had written a movement into the song itself, with lyrics in the fourth verse literally calling into question why there was no federal support for the idea.
“I just never understood/ How a man who died for good/ Could not have a day that would/ Be set aside for his recognition,” Wonder sings.
But it was the passion behind his activism that helped to create the January holiday now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The bill to create the holiday was introduced by Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. just four days following King's April 4, 1968 assassination. Conyers and New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm resubmitted the proposal every congressional session until it gained enough votes to pass. During such time, communities across the country began honoring King with their own special programs.
In 1976, President Jimmy Carter endorsed the bill, however, Congress would not move to create the holiday. Soon after, Wonder began his musical activism to influence communities and encourage congressional support. In a 1979 performance at a Georgia rally on King's birthday, Wonder encouraged the crowd not only to take the day as a personal holiday but to also write letters to Congress demanding they support Conyer's bill.
Ahead of President Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration, Wonder along with poet, Gil Scott-Heron, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Diana Ross joined together among more than 100,000 supporters who chanted "happy birthday."
“No assassination, no repression, no technological overkill can kill [King’s] great and classic values," Wonder told the crowd, according to Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. "They live forever in the hearts of free people everywhere, and for all time. It is because he best represents these principles that Martin Luther King is such a heroic figure. A man of his time. A man for all seasons. Certainly, a man America can be proud of.”
Wonder would lead two more rallies, in 1981 and 1982, before it appeared he had finally gotten the congressional attention necessary to create the holiday. In February 1982, Wonder and Scott King testified before Congress, this time with a petition containing six million signatures in support of the measure. The bill finally passed the House in August 1983 and cleared the Senate that October. It was signed into law by Reagan later that month, however, its first observation wasn't until Jan. 20, 1986.
“I had a vision of the Martin Luther King birthday as a national holiday,” Wonder told Rolling Stone magazine in 1986. “I mean, I saw that. I imagined it. I wrote about it because I imagined it and I saw it and I believed it. So I just kept that in my mind 'til it happened.”