A video by Vulture breaks down how Wonder played a pivotal role in making MLK Day a reality. Shortly after King’s assassination Representative John Conyers introduced a bill that would create a day honoring the civil rights icon. Unfortunately, the bill failed to be approved by five votes in 1979, with conservative Senator Jesse Helms leading Congress and denouncing King as a lawbreaker who had been manipulated by Communists.
The following year, Wonder released “Happy Birthday” with lyrics advocating for the cause. Although written years earlier “Happy Birthday” found itself on Wonder’s Hotter Than July album, with the record’s sleeve design featuring a large picture of King with the following declaration: “We still have a long road to travel until we reach the world that was his dream. We in the United States must not forget either his supreme sacrifice or that dream.”
The song, along with a tour that Wonder embarked on with Bob Marley (and Gil Scott-Heron who replaced Marley when the reggae singer was diagnosed with cancer), reinvigorated the fight for the commemorative holiday, with Coretta Scott King delivering a petition in 1983 that received over six million signatures.
The bill ended up being passed that same year and three years later on January 20, 1986, people across the United States were able to celebrate Martin Luther King Day for the very first time.
So, thank you Wonder for helping make this day possible and thank you King for fighting for the betterment and equality of oppressed and marginalized people in this country.