Playing a role in the Civil Rights Movement is a thread weaved into the blanket of America’s soundtrack. The legendary Stevie Wonder played an integral part in bringing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day into fruition with its own soundtrack.
Wonder recalled the first time he had heard of Dr. King. “I was 5 when I first heard of MLK.” As he listened to the coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott on the radio, “I asked, ‘Why don’t they like colored people? What’s the difference? I still can’t see the difference. Want to know why? Because there is no difference,” Wonder said. That moment fueled him to lead the crusade to help create Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
In 1968, just days after Dr. King’s assassination, Michigan congressman John Conyers introduced legislation to make a federal holiday in King’s honor according to History.com.
Congress didn’t move the bill forward and over the years, some states enacted holidays in honor of King on their own. In 1979, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, testified before Congress but it didn’t work. Things started to change in the early 80s. Stevie Wonder penned the hit song, “Happy Birthday” on his 1980 album Hotter than July. The record pays respect to Dr. King with his portrait on the right and a collage of images from the Civil Rights Movement on the left.
Under Dr. King’s image, Wonder wrote: “Martin Luther King was a man who had that strength. He showed us, non-violently, a better way of life, a way of mutual respect, helping us to avoid much bitter confrontation and inevitable bloodshed. We still have a long road to travel until we reach the world that was his dream. We in the United States must not forget either his supreme sacrifice or that dream.”
The song celebrates King’s legacy but also takes aim at those who oppose the holiday with the lyrics:
“You know it doesn’t make much sense/ There ought to be a law against/Anyone who takes offense/ At a day in your celebration/ Cause we all know in our minds/ That there ought to be a time/ That we can set aside/ To show just how much we love you.”
After “Happy Birthday’s” release, Wonder and Mrs. King continued the fight to get Dr. King’s legacy honored. In 1982, she and Stevie Wonder presented a petition with more than six million signatures in support of the holiday to the then speaker of the house.
In November 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing the third Monday of January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday. The first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated January 20, 1986, nearly 18 years after his assassination.
To this day, Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song is a familiar one embraced by the Black community when celebrating a friend or family member as an alternative to the traditional birthday song. The chorus is a joyful call to kinship.
Stevie Wonder still performs “Happy Birthday” to spread the message of Dr. King.