The song was released on Wonder’s 1980 album Hotter Than July. He regularly sang it at national day rallies.
Every year on the third Monday in January, we commemorate and honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The holiday always falls between January 15 and 21, which corresponds to King’s birthday, January 15.
But it was not always so. MLK Day officially became a federal holiday with the adoption of a law in 1983 and was first celebrated in 1986.
Some people have wondered if Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”, which has King’s name in the lyrics, is related to the holiday. One social media post from MLK Day 2022 stated that the song was written to promote a movement to make MLK Day a federal holiday.
Did Stevie Wonder produce “Happy Birthday” in support of making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday?
Yes, Stevie Wonder produced the song “Happy Birthday” in support of making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.
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Stevie Wonder has been active in the movement to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. His song “Happy Birthday” explicitly states that King’s birthday should be celebrated as a national holiday.
The song’s second verse begins: “I just never understood / Like a man who died forever / Couldn’t have a day that would / Was put off for his confession.” The verse then ends with the name of the person in question: “For in the world our hearts will sing / Thank you Martin Luther King.”
The song was part of Wonder’s 1980 Hotter Than July album and was released as the album’s fourth single in 1981. According to the Atlanta History Center, the album’s original vinyl sleeve directly advocated for King’s birthday to become a national holiday.
“I and a growing number of people believe that it is time for our country to pass a law that will make January 15, the birthday of Martin Luther King, a national holiday, both in recognition of his achievements and as a reminder of the distance that still continues. need to travel,” Wonder wrote on the sleeve. “Join me in celebrating January 15, 1981 as a national holiday. Stevland Morris aka Stevie Wonder.
According to Motown Records, the label that released the song “Happy Birthday” has become a signature of the campaign.
But Wonder didn’t wait until 1981 to intervene.
“He’s already been working on it for a couple of years with Coretta King,” said Kevin Fellez, Ph.D., associate professor of music and African American studies at Columbia University.
After the day’s observance bill failed by five votes in the House of Representatives in 1979, public support for the bill continued to grow “thanks in no small part to musician Stevie Wonder,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. .
Over the next few years, the musician appeared many times at rallies along with Coretta Scott King. Motown Records reports that he led a 100,000 march in Washington, D.C. in 1981 and also took part in another rally at the Washington Monument in 1983.
By the time a bill making King’s birthday a national holiday was returned to the House in 1983, Coretta Scott King, the Black Congress, and Stevie Wonder were working together to submit a 6 million-signature petition to the House in support of the bill.
The bill passed easily in the House of Representatives but was briefly delayed in the Senate. When Wonder attended the August 27, 1983 rally marking the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, the bill had not yet passed the Senate. He asked the crowd to join him in calling on his senators to vote on the bill before leading the crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
The bill eventually passed the Senate and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in November 1983. The holiday was first celebrated in 1986.
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