How Stevie Wonder helped create Martin Luther King Day

Written by on 01/20/2020

Addendum: Eye-witness account by the Ratcliffs of the big D.C. rally

Stevie Wonder promotes the first official celebration of Martin Luther King Day, on Jan. 20, 1986, a national holiday that he, more than anyone else, is responsible for creating.

by Marcus Baram

On the evening of April 4, 1968, teen music sensation Stevie
Wonder was dozing off in the back of a car on his way home to Detroit from the
Michigan School for the Blind, when the news crackled over 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, tears streaming
down Wonder’s face.

Five days later, Wonder flew to Atlanta for the slain civil rights hero’s funeral, as riots erupted in
several cities, the country still reeling. He joined Harry Belafonte, Aretha
Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross and a long list of
politicians and pastors who mourned King, prayed for a nation in which all men
are created equal and vowed to continue the fight for freedom.

Wonder was still in shock – he remembered how, when he was 5,
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

At the funeral, Wonder was joined by his local
representative, young African-American Congressman John Conyers, who had just
introduced a bill to honor King’s legacy by making
his birthday a national holiday
. Thus began an epic crusade, led by Wonder
and some of the biggest names in music – from Bob Marley to Michael Jackson – to
create Martin Luther King Day.

Nancy Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Berry Gordy Jr. and Marlon Brando arrive at the funeral for Dr. King on April 9, 1968.

At Dr. King’s funeral, Stevie Wonder learned of John Conyers’
bill to make King’s birthday a national holiday. To overcome the resistance of
conservative politicians, 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.

In the immediate wake of King’s death, the political
establishment was more concerned with keeping things calm, tamping down unrest,
and arresting rioters and activists. It was a violent year – that summer the
Democratic convention in Chicago exploded in chaos and another inspiring
leader, Robert F. Kennedy, was killed by an assassin. The country seemed on the
verge of civil war.

Conyers’ bill languished in Congress for over a decade,
through years of anti-war protests, Watergate and political corruption, stifled
by inertia and malaise at the end of the 1970s. The dream was kept alive by
labor unions, who viewed King as a working-class hero, with protests that
slowly built up steam.

At a General Motors plant in New York, a small group of auto
workers refused to work on King’s birthday in 1969, and thousands of hospital
workers in New York City went on strike until managers agreed to a paid holiday
on the birthday. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, led a birthday rally that
year in Atlanta, where she was joined by Conyers and union leaders. By 1973,
some of the country’s largest unions, including the AFSCME and the United
Autoworkers, made the paid holiday a regular demand in their contract

Finally in 1979, President Jimmy Carter, who had been
elected with the support of the unions, endorsed the bill to create the holiday. Carter made an
emotional appearance at King’s old church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

But Congress refused to budge, led by conservative Sen.
Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who denounced King as a lawbreaker who had been
manipulated by Communists. The situation looked bleak.

By then, Wonder had matured from a young harmonica-playing
sensation to a chart-topping music genius lauded for his complex rhythms and
socially-conscious lyrics about racism, black liberation, love and unity. He
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.”

Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott-King in 1984

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,’” remembers producer Malcolm Cecil.

He held onto it until “the movement for the holiday was
gaining steam,” 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 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.”

Stevie performs alongside Bob Marley.

That August, during a memorable 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 was ripe with symbolism – 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, and Wonder was concerned about the “disturbing drift in the country
towards war, bigotry, poverty and hatred.”

Tickets sold out for the concerts, buzz was building, but
then disaster struck – Marley checked into a hospital in New York with the
cancer that would cause him to perish just six months later. Wonder asked
songwriter and poet Gil Scott-Heron, known for his polemic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” to fill in for the
ailing reggae superstar.

The tour was the highlight of Scott-Heron’s career, he later wrote in “The
Last Holiday,” his book devoted to King and Wonder for inviting him to join the
cause. At the end of every show, he would join Wonder on stage to lead the
audience in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

The tour was full of extremes. When they played at Madison
Square Garden in November, Wonder delighted the huge audience with a surprise
guest – the Prince of Pop. Michael Jackson slid on to stage during the reggae
rhythm of “Master Blaster” and the crowd screamed as he twirled “like a boneless ice skater,” remembered Scott-Heron.

And when they played in Los Angeles a week later with Carlos
Santana, Wonder had to somberly announce John Lennon’s killing that night to a
stunned audience that soon started wailing and breaking down in tears. In a
moving elegy, Wonder talked about their friendship and praised Lennon’s
integrity, connecting him to King, drawing “a circle around the kind of men who
stood up for both peace and change” and making the upcoming rally even more

Stevie Wonder, with Gil Scott Heron, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Gladys Knight, holds a press conference at the Rafu Gallery in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15, 1981, the day of the rally on the National Mall.

The mood was somber by the time the tour arrived in
Washington in early 1981, as the liberal city prepared for Reagan’s
inauguration. No one expected much of a turnout for an MLK rally on a chilly
snowy day.

But 100,000 people from all over the country braved the cold
on Jan. 15 to hear Scott-Heron, Diana Ross and Jesse Jackson speak. When Wonder
came up to the podium, the audience started chanting, “Happy Birthday!”

He spoke eloquently: “Why Stevie Wonder, as an artist, why
should I be involved in this great cause? … 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.”

Despite the outpouring of support – and millions of
signatures gathered by Wonder and his team – Congress continued to debate the
issue. President Reagan opposed the holiday, citing the cost of another
national day off and suggesting instead a scholarship program for young Blacks.

Wonder came back the next January for another rally, and
finally hearings resumed in 1982 and 1983. Though both Coretta Scott King and
Wonder gave moving testimony, conservatives were on fire, led by Jesse Helms.

an intense filibuster
, the North Carolina Republican labeled King a “Marxist-Leninist”
whose “whole movement included Communists” and called on the FBI to release its
records on King. His language was so hateful that at one point, New York Sen.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan angrily threw a batch of Helms’s documents on the
floor, calling it a “packet of filth.”

On Nov. 2, 1983, Coretta Scott King watches President Reagan sign the bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. Despite Stevie Wonder’s determination, she hadn’t expected the holiday to become law.

At that point, the rhetoric had grown so incendiary that
even moderates in opposition felt compelled to express their support for the
holiday. The bill passed, 78 to 22. Reagan signed the bill into law in November
1983, but the holiday was not officially observed until the third Monday of
January 1986. For many years to come, certain states refused to honor the
holiday until in 2000 South Carolina became the final state to recognize Martin
Luther King Day.

Stevie Wonder continues to celebrate King’s birthday with
frequent performances. On Nov. 24, 2014, he was honored with the Congressional
Medal of Freedom at the White House by President Obama, who told the singer that the first record he ever bought
was by Wonder.

Marcus Baram, Fast
Company features editor, alum of the Wall Street Journal, NYO Magazine and the
New York Daily News, author of “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man,” and skeptic,
can be reached at
or @mbaram. This story first appeared on Medium’s

President Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to Stevie Wonder in the White House on Nov. 24, 2014. The Medal of Freedom is the country’s highest civilian honor.

Dr. Willie and Mary
Ratcliff: We were there!

On Jan. 15, 1981, we were in the crowd of 100,000 enthralled by Stevie Wonder’s persistent demand that the USA owed Black people a national holiday dedicated to the heroic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a cold day in the swamp Washington, D.C., was built on; a light blanket of snow covered the National Mall.

Only a small crowd was expected, but nevertheless the cops
were well prepared to make us unwelcome. Mounted police used their horses as
battering rams running at the edges of the crowd. Instead of running people
off, all they did was push us closer together.

We stayed tightly packed when we realized how much warner we were with our bodies united in what amounted to one huge embrace. Though people came from all over the country – we had come all the way from Alaska – most of the nearly all-Black crowd were native Washingtonians, poor people dressed in thin jackets and holey tennis shoes.

Two groups populated the Mall that afternoon: the poor
masses Dr. King sacrificed his life for and the ultra-rich, most notably well
dressed men hurrying to inaugural events with their wives wrapped in bushy mink
coats looking like giant squirrels. The first presidential inauguration of
Ronald Reagan was just five days away.

Imagine the drama as we gathered for the rally – those thin
jackets and holey shoes walking toward the rally passing the mink coats headed
the other way. Stevie Wonder’s crowd knew we had our work cut out for us, just
as we did when Trump was inaugurated.

Stevie had brought a good sound system. We could feel the
power of the people as one revolutionary message after another rang out across
the crowded Mall. The police hadn’t been able to run us off, so they tried to
drown us out, flying helicopters low over our heads, especially when Stevie led
us in singing “Happy Birthday” over and over again. All the helicopters
accomplished was to blow the snow away from our feet.

That was the only time we ever saw Stevie Wonder in person; the
bond between him and his people was palpable and powerful. And his advocacy for
and solidarity with heroic Black leaders didn’t stop with Martin Luther King.

This story about Stevie Wonder starts in 1968, when he was a
teenager. But he was already a famous entertainer, known nationwide as Little
Stevie Wonder. A friend who had lived in the Detroit Panthers’ home and headquarters
said that whenever the Panthers needed to rally the people, they’d first invite
Little Stevie Wonder, who could draw on short notice a crowd of as many as

We thank Stevie Wonder for daring to fight for all the
heroes across the enormous and glorious spectrum of the struggle for Black

Dr. Willie Ratcliff
and Mary Ratcliff, publisher and editor of the Bay View, can be reached at or 415-671-0789.

Source: San Francisco Bay View

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