Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr., the Rev. Jesse Douglas, King, James Forman and John Lewis

Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday.’ The hit helped create a national holiday

In the summer of 1979, Stevie Wonder called Coretta Scott King to tell her about a dream he had.

“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,’” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2011.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow was excited, but doubtful.

The song in question was Wonder’s 1980 release “Happy Birthday,” now lovingly known to African Americans as the Black version of the traditional song.

“I wish you luck,” Scott King replied. “We’re in a time where I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Wonder recounted.

“I said, ‘Well, no, I really believe it will.’”

He was right. Wonder and his 1980 single would play an outsize role in the creation of Martin Luther King Day; the first national holiday honoring a Black American, celebrated on the third Monday of January each year.

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, shakes hands with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Montgomery, Ala., March 22, 1956, as a big crowd of supporters cheer for King who had just been found guilty of leading the Montgomery bus boycott. Circuit Judge Eugene Carter suspended the fine of $500 pending an appeal. King's wife Coretta stands next to him. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick)

Supporters respond to Martin Luther King’s death

Four days after an assassin’s bullet struck the peace activist on April 4, 1968, Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. submitted a bill to make King’s birthday a national holiday; but the measure failed to gain popular support. Conyers and New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm resubmitted the proposal each subsequent congressional session until it gained the votes needed to pass.

Instantaneously, both official and unofficial memorials and commemorations cropped up in cities and towns across the country. On the day of King’s funeral, one south New Jersey town’s school board swiftly passed a resolution declaring his Jan. 15 birthday a holiday (they claim they were the first government body in the U.S. to do so).  By 1973, King’s hometown of Atlanta had designated the day as a legal holiday. Yet by 1981 only 13 states had recognized it — to some degree.

As early as 1969, Black and brown union workers had begun to agitate in favor of the King holiday. The leader had been a strong labor union supporter and set the demand for fair wages and “full employment” as a centerpiece of his activism. When King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, he was there to back striking sanitation workers who were pushing for higher wages among other work reforms.

At a New York General Motors plant, a small group of auto workers refused to labor on King’s birthday one year after his death, and thousands of hospital workers launched a strike until managers agreed to make it a paid holiday. By the early 70s, the United Autoworkers and AFSCME, two of the country’s largest unions, had made the King holiday a regular demand in contract negotiations.

When Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election, King supporters had hoped he would be swayed to act by his debt to the unions, which had played a major role in his victory. The president endorsed the bill, but not even a plea from the sanctuary of King’s former Atlanta church Ebenezer Baptist moved the congressional needle.

The Alabama Journal newspaper reported in July 1972 that “demands for Black history, Afro clubs and a Martin Luther King Memorial Day observance led to notable student walkouts” in Montgomery public schools the year prior. In 1973, when the late Alvin Holmes, not yet an Alabama representative, asked Montgomery county commissioners to declare Jan. 15 Martin Luther King Jr. Day he was met with indifference. Scott King, with an assist from civil rights attorney and then Alabama legislator Fred Gray found no better luck that year when they appealed to the state.

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Push for MLK holiday intensifies

By the time Wonder began to pen the lyrics to his infectious tune, things looked bleak. The social turmoil of the 60s had given way to increased calls for “law and order” — a dog whistle that played on stereotypes of Black criminality and demanded increased policing and punitive measures in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods. As the U.S. moved through the 70s and into the 80s, the gaps in poverty and social stratification between Americans had widened considerably.

Black voters, further enfranchised by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of mid-60s civil rights reforms, gave conservatives pause.

“After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we had scores of Blacks elected to state legislatures, more Blacks elected as sheriffs; Blacks were holding all kinds of elected offices throughout the South. I think there was a real fear about what this new bloc of voters might portend and what they might produce in terms of Republican control,” said Alabama State University history chair Professor Derryn Moten.

Singer-song-writer Stevie Wonder shown Jan. 3, 1986, assumes diverse duties as executive producer, host and a performer for An All-Star Celebration Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. that year. Wonder first recalled hearing the young Black minister speak on the radio when he was 5 years old.

“Looking back, I would say that many of us felt that the chances of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday becoming a holiday were [slim].”

When Wonder performed at a rally at the Georgia Capitol on King’s birthday in 1979, he implored the crowd to take the day as a personal holiday and write to their congresspersons to demand passage of Conyer’s bill.

His lyrics cut to the heart of the matter.

Wonder chides naysayers in the song’s opening: “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.”

With its heavy synths and energetic chorus, it’s easy for listeners to miss the significance of Wonder’s appeal. But in 1980, when the singer debuted the final track off his hit album “Hotter Than July,” he embarked on a massive publicity campaign (the record’s sleeve featured a large photo of King and a message urging fans to support the MLK bill).

In August, he appeared in a news interview with Barbara Walters on “20/20” and announced a four-month tour across America with Bob Marley to campaign for the national holiday. Tragically, not long after the announcement Marley learned he had a rare form of cancer that would later prove fatal. Gil Scott-Heron joined the tour in his absence.

Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., embraces Stevie Wonder during a celebration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, on Nov. 3, 1983, after U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the civil rights leader's birthday, Jan. 15, a national holiday.

Wonder’s campaign culminated on Jan. 15, 1981, in Washington, D.C., just five days before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. Reagan would later assert that he opposed the holiday due to its exorbitant costs.

On the National Mall, Diana Ross and Jesse Jackson joined Scott-Heron and the R&B singer before more than 100,000 people in support of the King holiday. As Wonder approached the podium to speak, the crowd chanted: “Happy Birthday.”

“No assassination, no repression, no technological overkill can kill [King’s] great and classic values. They live forever in the hearts of free people everywhere, and for all time,” he told the crowd. “It is because he best represents these principles that Martin Luther King is such a heroic figure. A man of his time. A man for all seasons. Certainly, a man America can be proud of.”

The strategy was working. The single, the marches, the musical appearances had all helped the campaign pick up speed. The singer continued to intensify his efforts, funding a lobbying office in Washington to advocate for the holiday’s passage and working hand-in-hand with Congressional Black Caucus members to advance the goal. Wonder again sponsored two more rallies at the capital in ’82 and ’83.

More than a decade of persistence pays off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

While Conyer’s bill languished in the House for 13 years, Wonder and Scott King never relented. In February 1982 they were invited to testify before Congress; it was not Scott King’s first appearance. She and Wonder presented a petition to the speaker of the house bearing more than 6 million signatures of support. Public pressure for the holiday was mounting.

Members of the House continued to debate, pushing the issue into 1983’s legislative session. Scott King would call for an economic boycott on Jan. 15 that year, but holiday supporters wouldn’t have need. The bill passed the House in August by a vote of 338-90. In October, it arrived in the Senate where it passed 78-22 over the staunch objections of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms whose infamous 16-day filibuster failed to block the measure’s passage. When Reagan signed it into law on Oct. 19, Conyers, Scott King and Wonder were all in attendance.

However, it wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 20, 1986 — the country’s first official Martin Luther King Day.

Entertainers Amy Grant, left, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross at a rehearsal for "All Stars Celebration Honoring Martin Luther King Jr." at the Kennedy Centre, in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 1986. (AP Photo)

That evening, Wonder produced three simultaneous performances. Celebrities crowded the stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., while performers and revelers at New York’s Radio City Hall and Atlanta’s Civic Center rocked and swayed through the evening in celebration. As the night closed, Wonder and Diana Ross took to the stage to introduce the maestro of their final performance, renowned producer Quincy Jones. With a decisive swipe of his arm, the stage erupted in song; and as “Happy Birthday” bounded through the room, everyone rose to their feet.


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