“Happy Birthday”: The Role Of Stevie Wonder’s Hit Song In The Creation Of MLK Day

BY Dora Abena Dzaka November 6, 2023 9:41 PM EDT
Photo Credit: File:Stevie Wonder 2.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Happy Birthday, Stevie Wonder’s popular song that helped create MLK Day was released in 1981. The song was a way to remind American lawmakers and voters that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ought to be honored with a national holiday.

The song demonstrated Stevie’s unwavering advocacy resulting in the official designation of January 15, 1986, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States.

Few musicians, even outside their comfort zones, possess the cultural magnetism that makes their work relevant in our lives. In the 1970s, several states, including Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, declared holidays on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. However, Congress did not go so far as to establish a national holiday.

Even with President Jimmy Carter’s support, the King Holiday Bill was defeated in November 1979 by a mere five votes. Wonder composed Happy Birthday following the Bill’s 1979 defeat and included it in his 1980 Hotter Than July album.

The song was released as a single in 1981, the same year the Motown icon hosted the Rally for Peace press conference. Ironically, for a song leading an American campaign, it achieved its greatest international success, peaking at No. 2 in the United Kingdom.

Over ten years of frustration gave birth to the song. Following the renowned civil rights activist’s 1968 murder, a movement was launched to declare January 15th, his birthday, a national holiday. Nevertheless, despite intensive lobbying, the holiday wasn’t formally recognized until 1986 and wasn’t even enacted into law until 1983.

Stevie and Coretta’s wishes came true towards the end of 1983. The holiday was authorized by President Ronald Reagan and is celebrated annually on the third Monday in January.

Wonder headlined a significant concert to commemorate the first-ever Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 20, 1986, the day Americans celebrated the great man’s birthday by naming a holiday in his honor.

Time magazine documented the observance of the first MLK Day, describing it as “an occasion to recall one of the most painful and dramatic eras of American history.” The celebration is marked with candlelight vigils, concerts, readings, teach-ins, and religious services among others across the nation.

Wonder once again showed how much he loved Dr. King in 2021 when he wrote an open letter to the late leader reflecting on how far we had come and how far we still needed to go to realize his dream.

In his letter to MLK, Stevie Wonder recalled:

“When I was fourteen years old, I met you. You became an inspiration and were a real hero. It has been a blessing for me to compose love, hope, and inspirational songs, many of which were influenced by your life. I want you to know that you have my sincere gratitude, more than any award I have ever received, for changing my perspective on love and enabling me to work toward advancing equality and love. Knowing that the needle has not moved an iota is excruciating. You wouldn’t believe the lack of advancement despite the fact that we have celebrated your birthday and ideals with a holiday for 36 years. I feel physically ill from it. I just never understood how a man who died for good could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition,” Steve Wonder penned.