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Signed, Sealed, Delivered: How Stevie Wonder Fought—and Won—for MLK Day

After making music history, Stevie Wonder rewrote American history.

We all know Stevie Wonder as a one-of-a-kind musical powerhouse. Stevie initially shocked the world his preteen prodigy debut in the 1960s, then went on to redefine brilliance through his landmark ’70s albums and light up the ’80s with many of the most cherished pop moments of the decade. Stevie has since continued to create essential music, never merely resting on any kind of “elder statesmen” laurels.

The indomitable Mr. Wonder has remained tireless, as well, in his social activism, a mission that commenced around the same time as his musical debut and carries on unabated in the 21st century.

It’s impossible to calculate how many lives and hearts have been enriched and uplifted by Stevie Wonder’s art and advocacy. One absolutely palpable milestone for which Stevie earns our eternal gratitude, however, is the creation of a United States national holiday honoring the birth of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When you give thanks for the civil rights giant on the third Monday of January, also consider how Stevie Wonder, from age 17 in 1968 up until the holiday was signed into law in 1983, worked relentlessly to turn the tragedy of MLK’s murder into a shared day of reflection and unity.

Heroes help heroes and, in turn, that helps us all.

It was at Martin Luther King’s funeral that Michigan Representative John Conyers introduced the idea to Stevie of creating a national holiday. The shattered youth drew strength from the notion and made it his business to bring it to reality, enlisting his professional peers on the order of Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and even Bob Marley in the campaign over the decades it took to reach fruition.

Wonder’s cause also drew support from labor unions beginning on January 15, 1969—Dr. King’s birthday—when auto and hospital workers stayed home in huge numbers to commemorate King. Within four years, massive unions on the order of the AFSCME and United Autoworkers successfully made MLK Day part of their contracts.

All along the way, Stevie Wonder appeared with Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and never abandoned working for the national holiday.

Rep. Conyers’ bill got back-burnered by Congress until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter through his weight behind the cause. Right-wing politicians immediately stormed back against the bill, but their reaction just fired up Stevie Wonder anew.

Stevie mounted rallies and concerts in support of the MLK Birthday Bill, raising funds and consciousness everywhere. During an Atlanta show that also featured Peabo Bryson, Stevie addressed the crowd—and the world—directly. “We all know his dream,” Wonder said, “and we all want it to come true. But words are only verbiage. We must put action to with these thoughts to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream a reality. January 15 should be a holiday we all want. If we cannot celebrate a man who died for love, then how can we say we believe in it? It is up to me and you.”

The battle over the birthday bill raged on in Congress. In 1980, Stevie recorded “Happy Birthday,” a song he wrote for Dr. King after he realized he didn’t know how to play the traditional tune with that title. As the MLK Day movement snowballed toward victory, Stevie dedicated his classic LP Hotter Than July to the cause, and released “Happy Birthday” as a single. It was a smash. More than that, though, “Happy Birthday” was a crucial moment for Stevie and, in a larger sense, America.

Upon issuing the record, Wonder told Coretta Scott King: “I had a dream about this song. And I imagined in this dream I was doing this song. We were marching with petition signs to make for Dr. King's birthday to become a national holiday. And she was excited about it. And she said, you know, ‘I wish you luck, you know. We're in a time where I don't think it's going to happen.’ I said, ‘Well, no, I really believe it will.’ And so our first march was in 1981, and we had another one in '82, '83. And then, ultimately, the bill was signed by President Reagan.”

Stevie toured with Bob Marley specifically to promote MLK Day. After cancer tragically struck the reggae legend, revolutionary poet and musician Gil-Scott Heron filled in. Michael Jackson and Carlos Santana also appeared. Every show ended with the headliners leading the crowd in “Happy Birthday.”

All that momentum led to a January 1981 rally in Washington D.C. attended by more than 100,000, where Stevie Wonder addressed the crowd, saying: “Why Stevie Wonder, as an artist? Why should I be involved in this great cause? … 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.”

The usual opponents roared their usual arguments. Stevie Wonder kept at it. On November 2, 1983, President Reagan, who initially proposed an MLK African-American scholarship fund instead of a national holiday, signed the Birthday Bill into law. Observance commenced on the third Monday of January in 1986.

Yet, still, Stevie wonder has never slowed down in fighting for other societal changes in which he believes. He released “Keep Moving Forward,” a pro-Obama anthem, in 2012. “Keep moving forward, don’t turn it around,” Stevie sings. “Keep moving forward, don’t let them bring us down.”

Two years later, President Obama awarded Stevie Wonder the Congressional Medal of Freedom. That highest honor our country can bestow upon an artist is perhaps the least we can do.

Happy birthday, MLK.