Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Owes A Lot Of Thanks To Stevie Wonder, Read Why…

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In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there is a lot to remember and think about in the first place. One of the items, is making the holiday in the first place. Following Dr. King’s 1968 assassination, one of the millions of people whose world was rocked was Stevie Wonder.

Wonder personally knew Dr. King, and the budding Motown/Jamla Records musician was a major vocalist of the 1960s (and 1970s) Civil Rights movement and social activism. After attending Dr. King’s funeral, one of the first mentions of implementing a holiday came from Wonder—who was among the many celebrities involved.

Medium’s Cuepoint and author Marcus Baram published a comprehensive piece on Stevie Wonder’s 15-year pursuit of getting Dr. King’s remembrance instituted. In 1979, when Wonder’s campaigning took strong form, the superstar announced his co-headlining tour with international Reggae icon Bob Marley. Together, the men were fighting federal governments for recognition of the Civil Rights icon. Right as the tour was to begin, at the symbolic setting of the National Mall in Washington D.C., Marley entered a New York City hospital with cancer. The Tuff Gong icon would tragically die within six months. In his absence, Wonder asked poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron to perform. Gil, who wrote about the resource gap, racism, and other margins in America at the time, called the tour a benchmark moment in his own career. Gil would close most shows in the 1979-1980 tour, joining Wonder for his song “Happy Birthday” from his Hotter Than July album. Michael Jackson and Carlos Santana were among guests at notable stops.

Baram writes, “Despite the outpouring of support—and millions of signatures gathered by Wonder and his team—Congress continued to debate the issue. President [Ronald] Reagan opposed the holiday, citing the cost of another national day off and suggesting instead a scholarship program for young Blacks. Wonder came back the next January for another rally, and finally hearings resumed in 1982 and 1983. Though both Coretta Scott King and Wonder gave moving testimony, conservatives were on fire, led by Jesse Helms. During an intense filibuster, the North Carolina Republican labeled King a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ whose ‘whole movement included Communists,’ and called on the FBI to release its records on King. His language was so hateful that at one point New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan angrily threw a batch of Helms’s documents on the floor, calling it a ‘packet of filth.'”

The ensuing debates and heated response led to the passing of the bill to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday with a 78-22 vote on the floor. In the closing six weeks of 1983, the bill was passed into law—however not observed until January 1986. Notably, not all states recognized the holiday—with the final, South Carolina, waiting until 2000.

Do you see a present-day equivalent of this kind of action through the arts?

Read “How Stevie Wonder Helped Create Martin Luther King Day” by Marcus Baram on Medium’s Cuepoint.

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