Sing, Celebrate! How Stevie Wonder Helped Create Martin Luther King Day
Happy birthday to you! We sing it every time someone has a birthday. Not the original version, but as we call it, the Stevie Wonder version: full of rhythm, energy and soul. But it’s this one song that is now cemented in Black culture crafted by Stevie in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King that has so much history.
(as originally seen posted here)
On the evening of April 4, 1968, teen music phenom Stevie Wonder was on his way home to Detroit from the Michigan School for the Blind, when the horrific news hit the radio: Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. His driver quickly turned off the radio and they drove on in silence and shock,disbelief and tears.
Five days later, Wonder flew to Atlanta for the slain civil rights hero’s funeral, as riots erupted in several cities, the country still in shock.
Wonder remembered how, when he was five, he first heard about King as he listened to 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.” As a young teenager, when Wonder was performing with the Motown Revue in Alabama, he experienced first-hand the evils of segregation—he remembers someone shooting at their tour bus, just missing the gas tank. When he was 15, Wonder finally met King, shaking his hand at a freedom rally in Chicago.
Wonder put his career on hold, led rallies from coast to coast and galvanized millions of Americans with his passion and integrity.
But it took 15 years.
Wonder had kept in touch with Coretta Scott King, regularly performing at rallies to push for the holiday. He told a cheering crowd in Atlanta in the summer of 1979, “If we cannot celebrate a man who died for love, then how can we say we believe in it? It is up to me and you.”
Years earlier, Wonder had composed “Happy Birthday,” a song celebrating King’s life, dedicating the song and his next album to the cause. Originally he was going to record himself singing the traditional song to King but Wonder didn’t know the music, so he “wrote the hook for a different ‘Happy Birthday.’” But Stevie held onto it until just the right time as the movement for Dr. King’s holiday got to it’s height and made it the centerpiece of his next album, Hotter Than July. The record’s sleeve design featured a large photograph of King with a passage urging fans to support the holiday bill: “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.”
That summer, Wonder called Coretta Scott King, telling her, “I had a dream about this song. And I imagined in this dream I was doing this song. We were marching with petition signs to make for Dr. King’s birthday to become a national holiday.”
King was touched but she didn’t have much hope, telling Wonder, “I wish you luck, you know. We’re in a time where I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
But Stevie kept pushing forward.
In August 1984, during an appearance with Barbara Walters on 20/20, Wonder played “Happy Birthday” on the keyboards, announcing that he would soon start a four-month tour with Bob Marley that would lead into a mass rally to push for the holiday. The location? The National Mall in Washington, D.C., where King had given his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. It was just a few months before the election that put Ronald Reagan in the White House.
After much opposition led by conservative Jesse Helms, the original bill that Rep. John Conyers tried to get passed years earlier, got passed. The vote 78 to 22. Reagan, who originally opposed the holiday,…