Song of the Week: Happy Birthday — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and His Impact on Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder's Happy Birthday ode to Dr. Martin Luther King appeared on his 1980 album Hotter Than July and helped create MLK Day. Credit: L4LM
By Alliance Communications Coordinator Amy Durr “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,” Stevie Wonder tells the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1980 tribute song Happy Birthday. “Both an unfiltered rebuke of MLK Day opponents and a contagious celebratory anthem, the song quickly became a sort of rallying cry” for the campaign to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday, according to Live for Live Music. Wonder continues to be profoundly influenced and inspired by the work of MLK. “In 2021, he published an open letter to Dr. King in which he contemplated how far things had come, and how far we still had to go to make his dream a reality,” continues Live for Live Music.

I met you when I was 14 years of age. You were a true hero and became an inspiration. I’ve been blessed to write songs of love, hope, and motivation—many of them inspired by your life. More than any award that I’ve ever received, I want you to know that I’m thankful how you influenced my place of love, which allowed me to try to push the needle of love and equality forward.

It is painful to know that needle has not moved one iota. For 36 years, we’ve had a holiday honoring your birthday and principles, yet you would not believe the lack of progress. It makes me physically sick.

I am sick that politicians try to find an easy solution to a four-hundred-year problem. I am sick of some people using God for a convenience rather than a commitment. I am sick of lies and deceit that dominate our reality. I am sick that truth is struggling to be heard and defended. What we say has not been what we do, and this country must reconcile our words and deeds.

Until we turn our mouth movement into righteous action, we’re doing our nation, God, and your memory an injustice. Until what we say is what we do, there is no truth. It is just repeating and rewriting history, just as we have for the last four hundred years.  @StevieWonder‘s open letter to MLK on Twitter

A happy song written as part of a hard-fought battle

The Library of Congress recounts more of the story of Stevie Wonder’s work in recognizing MLK with a national holiday in “Song Stories: Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday”: According to Charles Safiya, who wrote about Stevie Wonder for the Montgomery Advertiser in 2021, Wonder called Coretta Scott King—widow of Dr. Martin Luther King—in the summer of 1979 to tell her about a dream he had. He said, “I said to her, you know, ‘I had a dream about this song. And I imagined in this dream I was doing this song. We were marching, too, with petition signs to make for Dr. King’s birthday to become a national holiday.’” The song was Wonder’s 1980 release, “Happy Birthday,” now lovingly known as one of his most iconic works. According to Safiya, Wonder performed at a rally at the Georgia Capitol on King’s birthday in 1979. He encouraged the onlookers to write to their congressional representatives to demand passage of the bill. In August of that year, he appeared in an interview with Barbara Walters on “20/20″ and announced a four-month tour across America to campaign for the holiday. Originally, Bob Marley was supposed to join the tour, but later Marley learned he had a rare form of cancer that would lead to his untimely death. Gil Scott-Heron joined the tour in his absence. Stevie Wonder’s work in the studio on his 1980 album release, “Hotter Than July,” paired his vintage sound with his renewed purpose. The tracks contained his trademark sounds and catchy lyrics, but he also included a picture of Dr. King and a note imploring his fans to support the bill. The 1980 release of the single “Happy Birthday” was the apex of the campaign. On January 25, 1981, Scott-Heron, Diana Ross and Jesse Jackson joined Wonder at a 1980 rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. According to Scott-Heron’s 2012 memoir, the crowd chanted: “Martin Luther King, we took a holiday.” This would lead into a singing of “Happy Birthday” as Wonder spoke. He kept intensifying his efforts, financing an office in Washington to lobby for the holiday’s passage and working with Congressional Black Caucus members to achieve the goal. Wonder also held two more rallies at the Capitol in 1982 and 1983. Despite a 16-day Senate filibuster, the bill would pass. Congressman John Conyers (the bill’s sponsor and Wonder’s Congressional Representative from Michigan), Scott King and Wonder were all present when President Reagan signed the bill into law on October 19, 1983. On the evening of January 20, 1986 — the country’s first official Martin Luther King Day—there were three concerts that commemorated the occasion. According to The Washington Post there were gatherings at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and Atlanta’s Civic Center. Wonder even took out a full page ad in The Washington Post that day to share the lyrics of “Happy Birthday.” At the end of the evening, Wonder, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Dylan, and renowned producer Quincy Jones took to the stage for a rousing performance of “Happy Birthday.” The three concerts raised funds for the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and Malcolm-King College in Harlem.

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