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Diane Bernard (BBC)-On 15 January 1981, music legends Diana Ross and Gladys Knight, along with the “godfather of rap”, Gil Scott-Heron, joined renowned musician Stevie Wonder on stage at the National Mall in Washington, DC. The 50,000-strong audience chanted: “Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday,” according to Scott-Heron’s 2012 memoir, The Last Holiday, as the stars began to sing Wonder’s hit song, Happy Birthday, a tribute to the murdered civil rights leader.
“I just never understood/ How a man who died for good/ Could not have a day that would/ Be set aside for his recognition,” they sang, electrifying the crowd.
The 1980 song had represented the start of Wonder’s campaign to make the birthday of renowned peace activist, Martin Luther King Jr, into a federal holiday. For three years Wonder put his life on hold and dedicated tours, rallies and marches to bring his vision to life – a quest that would establish the first holiday in the US that honoured a black American.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of US President Ronald Reagan signing into law the bill that established Martin Luther King Day. Many today might be surprised to realise the instrumental role Stevie Wonder played in getting the legislation passed. But in fact, the global superstar’s artistry and political activism were intertwined throughout his career, even before the MLK Day drive, as he repeatedly called attention to social issues of mid-century America.
After Dr King’s assassination in April 1968, US Representative John Conyers Jr from Detroit, Michigan, and Wonder’s congressman, introduced a bill to make the activist’s birthday a federal holiday. But for 13 years, the bill languished, facing opposition from southern Democrats and conservative Republicans. For years, Wonder had quietly advocated for the holiday. But then, in 1979, he shared a dream he had with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. In a 2011 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Wonder said: “I said to her… ‘I imagined in this dream I was doing this song. We were marching with petition signs to make Dr King’s birthday a national holiday.'”
Scott King was excited, Wonder explained, but she also doubted his dream could come true at a time the nation was turning more and more conservative with the rise of Reaganism and New Right politicians in the Sun Belt (the Southern US), a reaction against President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s liberal agenda of the 1960s. But Wonder felt compelled by his dream and the next year he wrote Happy Birthday, for Hotter than July, a 1980 album that peaked at number three in the US charts and number two in the UK. Joined by Scott King, Wonder used his 1981 tour for that album as a worldwide drive to advocate for the holiday.
It’s amazing that someone could just write something that becomes a standard part of life as well as have political significance – Nelson George
“Stevie Wonder could write almost any kind of song,” music critic and documentary filmmaker Nelson George tells BBC Culture. “And as part of his mix of songs and melodies, he was always able to create songs about social injustice, particularly happy, major chord melodies that were easy to sing to,” he adds. George compares Happy Birthday – a big, cheerful song – to another of Wonder’s, Isn’t She Lovely. “For a whole group of people who grew up in the past 40 years, Happy Birthday has become the standard birthday song,” he says. “It’s amazing that someone could just write something that becomes a standard part of life as well as have political significance, but he was able to do that.”
Wonder’s quest to create a Martin Luther King Day holiday also followed the tradition of US musicians and popular artists who joined movements for social change throughout the 20th Century, according to Kevin Gaines, the Julian Bond professor of civil rights and social justice at the University of Virginia.
A new national holiday
By 1980, with the release of Happy Birthday’s call to action, Wonder was one of the most important musicians in the country, and Dr King’s birthday became a rallying point to codify his activism, says Nelson George. “People were looking at that point to honour King and his movement and the change in America.”
But the America that King was murdered in, in 1968, was different from that of 1980, with civil rights struggles morphing into new challenges like equal opportunity in housing and education. The newly-elected Regan administration was cool on civil rights issues, and Reagan initially spoke out against the idea of a national holiday, resurrecting the old innuendo about King being a subversive communist, just as civil rights opponents in the 1950s had.
“There were people then and probably still now, who just didn’t want a black person to have a national holiday,” George says. Many in the US also balked at the idea of making a holiday for someone who wasn’t a president or a government official, let alone a social activist. “There were a lot of threads working against this happening,” he adds.
After Wonder’s Hotter than July tour in 1981, he and Scott King began heavy lobbying of politicians and in 1982 delivered a petition to Congress with six million signatures. By January 1983, Wonder decided not to repeat his annual rally at the National Mall. Instead, he switched tactics and spent the day at a special legislative hearing to urge Congress to pass legislation. Finally, on 2 November 1983, their activism bore fruit, and President Reagan signed a bill into law to create a federal holiday honouring Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.
“It was wonderful to see the biggest artist of his time, through his peak years of popularity, harness his talent and his celebrity to do something that actually made a difference,” George says, adding that with the passage of the new law, we should see the song Happy Birthday as a “successful piece of political agitation”.
“I think that artists have been the catalyst for expressing social conditions since the beginning of all time,” Stevie Wonder said in 1980, when he first announced his drive for a national MLK Day. “I am not political. I am not a leader. I am a human being given the honour and gift of song. And with it, I give the best possible.”