The tour that helped create the MLK holiday

Gil Scott Heron

The following is an excerpt from “The Last Holiday: A Memoir” by Gil Scott-Heron. In it he relates his experience with Stevie Wonder on his 1981 “Hotter Than July” tour in which Wonder advocated and organized for the MLK Holiday.

Unless you stop to think for a minute, you might forget that it was in Memphis that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was shot and killed on a motel balcony on April 4, 1968. Stevie Wonder did not forget. In 1980, Stevie joined with the members of the Black Caucus in the U.S. Congress to speak out for the need to honor the day King was born by making his birthday a national holiday.

The campaign began in earnest on Halloween of 1980 in Houston, Texas with Stevie’s national tour supporting a new LP called “Hotter than July,” featuring the song “Happy Birthday,” which advocated a holiday for King. I arrived in Houston in the early afternoon to join the tour as the opening act. By 15 January 1981, King’s birthday, I had been working on the “Hotter than July” tour for 10 weeks.

What’s amazing about people who are supposed to “think of everything” is how many things have never crossed their minds. That was never more clear to me than when I saw how things looked from the back of the outdoor stage set up on the Washington, D.C. monument grounds as Stevie’s rally for King got under way.

I would never claim to be the smartest son of a gun on the planet. But by the same token, by then I had been in this business for 10 years and had to feel as though I knew more than when I started. I had some new information crossing my mind as I climbed the back stairs on to the temporary stage and looked out at perhaps 50,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder across the expanse of the Mall, chanting: “Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday!”

The Hotter than July tour was a project that, when taken as a whole, was set up to cover 16 weeks, or four months, a third of a year. The endeavor was cut into two six-week halves with a break—a rest period—that lasted a month. In essence, this rally was the half-time show before the second six-week half.

One thing that knocked me out looking at this half-time show was how much I had not thought about. Like how much work was involved in organizing a rally. That was what Stevie had done and what had to have taken up so much of his offstage time when we were playing, and what must have consumed what I was calling a “rest period.” The rally. Ways to publicize it, ways to dramatize it, ways to legitimize it.

I had no idea what this was costing, what the total expenses were. Nor did I ever ask about it and have the expenses incurred by Stevie neurotically concealed from me. I didn’t have any way to justify saying: “Hey, just what the hell is this gonna cost?” I considered that this information was probably something that was being distributed on a need-to-know basis, and apparently I did not have that. I didn’t worry about why.

My respect for Stevie Wonder expanded in every direction that day. I was following his lead like a member of his band, because seeing as he had envisioned was a new level of believing. It was something that seeped in softly, and when you were personally touched by someone’s effort and genuine sincerity, your brain said you didn’t yet understand but your soul said you should trust.

This piece of legislation to make King’s birthday into a national holiday looked like a long shot, especially with it being raised just after America had elected Ronald Reagan, who would be inaugurated at the other end of the Mall in five days. But if our community was to make valuable contributions, then those who made them had to be recognized as offering something of value.

Why would the next one of us feel that he or she should make the effort, marshal the strength, and somehow fortify him or herself against the opposition that always seemed stronger, if even a man who won the Nobel peace prize was ignored where those efforts for peace had done the most good?

All holidays should not be set aside for generals. To have the country honor men for doing what they did at a time when difficult personal decisions made their actions worthwhile for the overall good meant the same thing for all citizens. That had been both the point and the ultimate disappointment of what had once been called “the Civil Rights Movement.”

What was special about the 1960s was that there was only one thing happening, one movement. And that was the Civil Rights Movement. There were different organizations coming from different angles because of geography, but in essence everybody had the same objective. It came so suddenly, from so many different angles, things happening in so many different towns and cities at once, that the “powers that be” were caught off-guard.

Until the ’60s, “the movement” had been the exclusive property of middle-aged and old people. Then it became a young people thing, and as the ’60s opened up, the key word became “activism,” with Stokely Carmichael and the SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], “freedom rides”

, and sit-ins. There was a new feeling of power in Black communities. And once it got started, it was on the powers like paint.

 There I was at the halftime show, looking up and down the field, and I could see for the first time. I could see what this brother had seen long before, what really needed to be done.

We all took the stage. The crowd continued to chant “Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday!” Stevie stepped up to the mic and addressed them: “It’s fitting,” he said, “that we should gather here, for it was here that Martin Luther King inspired the entire nation and the world with his stirring words, his great vision both challenging and inspiring us with his great dream.

“People have asked, ‘Why Stevie Wonder, as an artist?’ Why should I be involved in this great cause? I’m Stevie Wonder the artist, yes, but I’m Steveland Morris, a man, a citizen of this country, and a human being. 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…”

Somehow, years later, it seems that Stevie’s effort as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten. But it is something that we should all remember. Just as surely as we should remember April 4, 1968, we should celebrate January 15. And we should not forget that Stevie remembered.