How Stevie Wonder helped make Martin Luther King Jr. day a national holiday

By Examiner Staff

Stevie Wonder penned “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1981. (Courtesy Photo)

A video published by Vulture on Friday relays crucial role Motown singer Stevie Wonder played in bringing Martin Luther King Jr. Day into fruition.

In 1968, just four days after Dr. King’s assassination, Michigan congressman John Conyers introduced legislation to make a federal holiday in King’s honor, according to The King Center.

Despite push from the public, Congress didn’t move Conyers’ bill forward. Throughout the decade, a number of states — including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut — enacted holidays in honor of King, though there was little movement on the federal front.

In 1979, Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, testified before Congress in support of a holiday bill. A nationwide effort to pass the federal holiday bill continues. Still, even with support from then-President Carter the bill lost in the House of Representatives by just five votes.

But then, in 1981, the campaign to federally honor Dr. King gets a soundtrack.

Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday,” first as a single, then on his album “Hotter Than July.”

The record’s pays respects 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, a joyous track carried by Wonder on a keyboard synthesizer, opens: “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, Mrs. King continued to try to get her husband’s legacy honored — she wrote to governors, mayors, and city councilmembers across the country, and recruited the support of hundreds of organizations. In 1982, she and Wonder presented a petition with more than six million signatures in support of the holiday to then-speaker of the house Tip O’Neil.

Finally, on Nov. 3, 1983, President Ronald Regan signed a bill establishing the third Monday of January the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday. The first Martin Luther King, Jr. day is celebrated January 20, 1986, 18 years after Dr. King’s assassination.