Happy Birthday to ya

Today is Martin Luther King Day. The holiday is celebrated just about everywhere by everybody. But that wasn’t always the case.

Stevie Wonder made a recording in 1980 to lobby for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s January 15 birthday to be an American national holiday. King was a black American Civil Rights leader with a unique message combining Jesus (love your enemies) and of Gandhi (nonviolent protest). King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was leaving his room to attend a soul-food dinner at the home of the Reverend Samuel (Billy) Kyles when he was shot by James Earl Ray on the motel’s balcony. The third Monday in January is now Martin Luther King Day.

Wonder played a huge part in getting Martin Luther King Day recognized as a national holiday in America. He helped organize a rally in Washington on January 15, 1981 (King’s birthday), that was a key event in the movement. With the crowd chanting, “Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday,” black leaders and celebrities appeared, and when Wonder spoke, he said: “As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us. I’d like to ask all of you just for one moment, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr. Martin Luther King.”

A highlight of the rally was Wonder’s performance of this song, and over the next few years, Wonder applied political pressure to get the holiday recognized. Another rally followed the next year, and on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill. The holiday was first observed in 1986, but it took many more years before every state made it a full holiday complete with a paid day off for state workers. South Carolina was the last to do so, joining the other 49 states in 2000.

In 1986, Wonder told Rolling Stone, “I had a vision of the Martin Luther King birthday as a national holiday. I mean I saw that. I imagined it. I wrote about it because I imagined it and I saw it and I believed it. So I just kept that in my mind till it happened.”

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