MLK Day: How Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ propelled the movement

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Reinventing the “Happy Birthday” song is kind of like reinventing the “ABC’s.”

But that’s exactly what the genius of Stevie Wonder accomplished with his “Happy Birthday” classic that became the anthem of the movement to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The song — with its jubilant “Happy birthday to ya!” chorus — has been sung at countless birthday celebrations in the 40 years since it was released as a single in 1981 after first appearing on Wonder’s 1980 album “Hotter Than July.”

But the R&B legend gave perhaps the most important performance of the tribute tune at a Washington, DC rally he spearheaded, which was held on King’s birthday, Jan. 15, in 1981. More than 25,000 people descended upon the National Mall, marching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument in the quest for MLK Day.

In his speech delivered that day, Wonder said, “We ought to have a way to honor this human being and reaffirm the ideals he lived and died for . . . Designating his birthday a national holiday would create an event for all Americans, for Dr. King was a champion for justice and liberty.”

But for many in attendance — including African-American stars such as Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Gil Scott-Heron, as well as civil rights activists such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III — Wonder made his biggest statement when he sang “Happy Birthday.” 

If you listen closer beyond that rousing chorus, it’s clear that the lyrics were written with Martin Luther King Jr. in mind: “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.”

And at that rally in 1981, the celebration was on. “It was the first time I’d heard the song actually,” said Athelia Knight, 70, who covered the rally for the Washington Post. “And I thought it was great. The crowd went wild. People were singing along. I guess people who had heard it before knew the words already. I was excited about it. And it made my story better.”

Singing “Happy Birthday,” Wonder united the predominantly black crowd in song — and in the mission. “To see them so invigorated by him singing that song on the Mall, on the Washington Monument, on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., it was just so great,” said Knight. “You just had this really joyous feeling in hearing it.”

Brooklyn native Nelson George, 63, took the Amtrak train down from New York to DC to join the masses. “I had just started work at Record World magazine. I was covering it because it was a music story [with] Stevie,” said the author, filmmaker and culture critic.

“The thing that people probably don’t know who are younger now is how big Stevie was at that time. He was without a doubt the preeminent black artist in America and arguably the preeminent music artist in America [period]. Politics and social commentary had always been part of his music, so when he got involved in this it wasn’t out of character. And it carried a ton of weight. It was a really nice thing to see Stevie leverage his cultural authority in pursuit of this.”

The music — a rubbery groove percolating with joyful gospel spirit — made the message hard to deny. “It’s not a political song that would scare people — it’s a political song that’s a singalong song,” said George. “So it was like smooth-tasting medicine. The song was such a fun song. It’s a hard song to hate.”

Wonder came by his activism as “a product of the ’60s,” said George. “When King was assassinated, I believe he was about 18. He was coming of age. But even as an adolescent, he recorded a version of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the Bob Dylan [protest] song. So Stevie was someone who had a very evolved political consciousness. He was a child of the civil rights movement.”

Wonder was also a child of Motown, a black-owned label, which released King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on an album called “The Great March on Washington” in 1963. The Detroit native also had a hometown connection with longtime Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who first introduced legislation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day four days after King was assassinated in April 1968.

That dream would finally become reality 15 years later in November 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday in January a federal holiday honoring the civil rights leader effective Jan. 20, 1986. And no doubt, “Happy Birthday” had an impact in making it happen.

“The song really got people moving in . . . advocating for making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday,” said Knight. “It was important because it was something that people could hold on to. People could see by singing this song that it’s gonna be a national holiday at some point soon.”

But Wonder’s role in the MLK Day movement went beyond “Happy Birthday.”

“It’s one thing to write a song, it’s another thing to actually be actively involved in lobbying and rallying people around the idea,” said George. “He extended himself and even risked some negative feedback.”

Forty years later, though, there are those who don’t know the meaning behind Wonder’s anthem even as they gleefully sing it as an alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday” song in the African-American community and beyond.

“It’s a shame that a lot of people today don’t know why the song first came out,” said Knight — who, after 33 years at the Washington Post, is now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

But it’s a testament to Wonder’s songwriting genius that “Happy Birthday” has “outlived the context of its original writing,” said George. “Now it’s just part of the fabric of America.” 

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How MLK Day became a national holiday: A timeline

1968

Michigan representative John Conyers — who was the longest-serving black Congressman before his 2019 death — introduced legislation to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday just four days after his assassination. 

1970

New York state and New York City became the first to commemorate MLK’s birthday. Later that year, on May 25, marchers moved down Fifth Avenue in a memorial parade, which had previously been held in Harlem.

1979

Two years before the big DC march where he sang “Happy Birthday,” Stevie Wonder performed at an Atlanta rally for the holiday, with MLK’s widow Coretta Scott King in attendance.

1980

Wonder went on a national concert tour to support the King holiday campaign. Michael Jackson was his surprise guest at the Madison Square Garden stop.

1983

With Coretta Scott King looking on, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill on Nov. 2 making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday.

1986

Eighteen years after his death, the first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday was observed on Jan. 20, five days after what would have been his 57th birthday.

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