Today’s a day when we reflect on the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King’s actual birthday was January 15th, 1929, but by law we mark the holiday every year on the third Monday in January.
The first proposal to mark King’s birthday was introduced days after his death in 1968.
But it wasn’t officially a national holiday until 1986.
And one of the people who pushed the hardest for that formal commemoration was music legend Stevie Wonder.
If you missed his heyday, you might not know how big of a phenomenon Stevie Wonder was.
He put out hit after hit after hit from the late 1960s through the 80s, from “Sir Duke” to “Higher Ground” to “Uptight” to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”
The list goes on and on.
His albums were not only top sellers, they were groundbreakers that won over critics as well as fans.
Stevie Wonder had attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.
He’d been writing and singing songs about what it was like to be Black in America throughout his career.
And as the push for a King holiday grew, Wonder wrote a song, called “Happy Birthday,” about why everyone in the U.S. should celebrate Dr. King’s birthday each year.
Over time, it became one of the highpoints of his live shows, especially when he started touring to raise awareness about the King holiday.
He also got other singers and celebrities to speak out, including Bob Marley, Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Gil Scott-Heron, Carlos Santana, and more.
In 1981 Wonder and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow and a powerful voice for civil rights herself, were organizing rallies on the National Mall in Washington to call for the holiday.
They testified before Congress.
They kept speaking out and, in Wonder’s case, singing out, until finally in 1983 Congress approved a bill establishing a national holiday in honor of Dr. King, taking effect in January 1986.
Stevie Wonder said he’d had a vision of the holiday and “just kept that in my mind till it happened.”
And then it did happen, but he had one more job to do.
To mark the first official national King holiday, Stevie Wonder organized an all-star celebration.
And it wasn’t just a concert.
It was three concerts, in Washington, New York and Atlanta, all on the same night.
Highlights from all three concerts were set to air on a TV special that night, just an hour after the last concert finished!
No doubt it was a lot of work to put those holiday together.
But after all the work it took to make the holiday happen, what was a few more concerts?
Signed, Sealed, Delivered: How Stevie Wonder Fought—and Won—for MLK Day (VH1)
Flashback: Stevie Wonder Sings ‘Happy Birthday’ at 1986 Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute (Rolling Stone)