In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Perry Thompson shares how Stevie Wonder worked tirelessly with others to ensure that Dr, King’s legacy would be observed with MLK Day as a US federal holiday on the third Monday of each January; with Wonder’s timeless “Happy Birthday” now a global anthem…
Black music has not only entertained the masses, it has also served to document history. For many years Black musicians mirror what’s going on through their music. Stevie Wonder did just that and more when he did his tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with his song “Happy Birthday ” which helped to make Dr. King’s birthday a US national holiday.
In 1979, Stevie Wonder called Dr. King’s widow Coretta Scott-King and told her a dream he had about writing a song in honor of Dr. King’s birthday and to make it a federal holiday. Mrs. King was excited, but doubtful. The song was simply titled “Happy Birthday” from his 1980 album “Hotter Than July”. His song would play a major role in the creation of MLK Day.
Stevie Wonder sacrificed three years of his music career to rally and campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. He did a four-month tour across America with Bob Marley and Gil Scott-Heron to campaign for the cause.
On January 15th 1981, Stevie Wonder along with Diana Ross and Jesse Jackson at the National Mall in Washington DC spoke to over 50,000 people in support of the King Holiday.
In February 1982, Stevie and Mrs. King presented a petition to the Speaker of the House with six million signatures in support of making Dr. King’s Birthday a national holiday. It was the biggest petition at the time!
On November 2nd 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a US national holiday. Stevie and Coretta Scott-King attended the signing.
However, it wouldn’t take effect until January 20th 1986, the country’s first official MLK Day. That evening Stevie Wonder produced three simultaneous performances. Celebrities performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Radio City Music Hall in New York, and the Civic Center in Atlanta, Georgia to celebrate this tremendous achievement!
Stevie Wonder’s vision in writing “Happy Birthday”, his sacrifice and determination helped to make Dr. King’s birthday a US national holiday and a timeless global tribute to the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize awardee, whose words and action changed history.
Perry Thompson is The President and CEO of the Rhythm and Blues Preservation Society
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