The song that changed the US

With Happy Birthday, Stevie Wonder successfully campaigned to honor Martin Luther King Jr with a national holiday, in a long career of socially conscious songwriting, writes Diane Bernard.

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 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 honored 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 realize 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.

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