Artists with courage and integrity help realize the Dream
The King holiday that we now take for granted came about with an enormous boost from an artist who could not see but had the vision to recognize the importance of such an observance, especially to the Black people for whom MLK sacrificed so much, even his life.
It has been 40 years since Stevie Wonder penned the simple words and crafted an up-tempo riff of the “Happy Birthday” song. Many of the folks born after 1980 may not be familiar with the origin of the soulful version of the “Happy Birthday” song—the version with the Black twist so-to-speak—now sung at practically every birthday celebration. But it was that song that helped create a groundswell of momentum to make the national King holiday inevitable.
Wonder had joined with MLK widow Coretta Scott King and others in the effort to have the human rights leader’s birthday made into a national holiday. In 1968, not long after King’s assassination, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the first bill attempting to bring nationwide recognition to MLK’s birthday.
“Stevie didn’t send a check. Stevie came. He would come to the marches, he would come to the rallies,” explained Reverend Al Sharpton. “Stevie was an activist in his own right.”
According to music historians, Wonder spent over two years away from his music to focus primarily on the King holiday effort. As part of his “Hotter than July” tour, the famous Motown musician organized a march and rally in Washington, D.C. in 1982 in which nearly 100,000 marched and gathered on a snowy day on the National Mall.
Wonder performed and gave the closing speech at the rally and concert [his speech reproduced on this page], and he was joined at the event by Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Gil-Scott Heron. The march and rally are credited with helping provide the final push. Wonder continued the fight for the holiday even after his tour by helping gather petitions for the holiday and even speaking before the U.S. Congress in support of the bill to make it a holiday.
So, it is only fitting, right and proper that we give Stevie Wonder his due. He took a simple song, a verse well-known to practically all, changed the rhythm, and subsequently changed a nation’s mind. A simple ditty pushed a nation attempting to roll back the social and civil rights gains of the previous decades, finally forcing the hand of one of the country’s more conservative recent presidents, Ronald Reagan, who signed the official holiday into law in 1983.
As a result, the first official federal holiday was observed in January of 1986. However, 23 states initially refused to recognize the holiday; today all 50 states observe the day. South Carolina was the last holdout, finally officially acknowledging the MLK holiday in 2000.
Contrast the vision of Wonder and artists of yesteryear who contributed to and sacrificed for the movement for freedom and justice with today’s Yeezy’s and HOV’s, who consider themselves “gods” unto themselves. They have made themselves too big to make such sacrifices. Their personal agendas are prioritized over the people who birthed them, who 400 years later are still fighting, still scuffling, still struggling for just a little more breathing space.
Had some of the opportunistic, self-obsessed and entrepreneurial-minded artists of today been left with the task of advancing the fight, they likely would have asked how much or would have left the task undone. Or, they may have given it verbal assent on social media without any effort to make it real. Worse yet, they would have sat down when asked to take a stand.
When it comes to sitting down, Colin Kaepernick, in the spirit of Stevie Wonder, did what he could to advance the cause of fighting against police violence: He took a knee. Jay-Z, rather than advance the modern-day struggle against police violence and honor the sacrifice of Kaepernick, declared that it was time to move on, saying, “I think everyone knows what the issue is—we’re done with that.”
Like Jay-Z, Kanye West, the pied piper of hip hop with the seemingly Midas touch, has passed on his opportunity to advance the movement in any way, shape or form. He put on a display in the Trump White House that would have put Stepin Fetchit, Uncle Tom and Clarence Thomas to shame.
Worse yet, in the year of the 400th anniversary of our struggle, West posited the idea that Black people preferred slavery to freedom. “When you hear about slavery for 400 years… For 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” said West in a 2018 interview with TMZ. He added, “It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.”
Oppression does indeed adversely affect the mind, and West’s words demonstrate that his mind may have been poisoned by self-hatred. He could have chosen the path of some of the artists of yesteryear: the Harry Belafontes, Gil Scott Herons, and the Stevie Wonders of the world who were creative geniuses in their own right. Each one added a new genre to the musical lexicon while also fighting the good fight against oppression.
Thankfully, there is the enduring example of Wonder, whose efforts to bring about the MLK holiday cost him a great deal of time and money. He has acknowledged, however, that whatever he sacrificed was well worth the effort.
So, on this observance of MLK’s birthday, let’s join hands and remind ourselves that we are not alone in this seemingly infernal and eternal struggle without end. The ancestors still stand watch over us, and they maintain the flame even as we sometimes grow weary. And as Stevie added in his lyrics to his now-famous song: “We’ll make the dream become a reality; I know we will, because our hearts tell us so.”
Happy Birthday to ya.
Happy Birthday to ya.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.