Legendary musician Stevie Wonder helped create MLK Day with a tribute song to Dr. King

Jalyn Smoot

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Stevie Wonder is one of the most influential artists of all time.

The famous voice behind hit songs “Ribbon in the Sky,” “Superstition” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Wonder has won the fourth-most Grammy awards (25) ever. He is one of just three artists to win Album of the Year award three or more times.

Throughout his decorated career, Wonder has befriended countless celebrities, artists, and even presidents.

Perhaps his most impactful friendship, though, was that of the one he formed with civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wonder met Dr. King at a Chicago rally in 1965 when the music legend was just 15 years old.

Wonder told Rolling Stone that the meeting was brief, but had a profound impact on his life.

After Dr. King was assassinated three years later, Wonder took up a decades-long fight to have the former Nobel Peace Prize winner honored.

I think that artists have been the catalyst for expressing social conditions since the beginning of all time,” Stevie Wonder said in 1980, when he first announced his drive for a national MLK Day. "I am not political. I am not a leader. I am a human being given the honor and gift of song. And with it, I give the best possible."

In 1979, Stevie Wonder had a dream that he made a song about Dr. King that formed a national holiday to honor the Atlanta-born activist.

Wonder then called Coretta Scott-King to share his vivid dream and his desire to make it a reality. Mrs. King was delighted by the idea but was doubtful it would materialize.

Despite this, Wonder pressed forward, eager to cherish the legacy of his friend and activist Dr. King.

It would be another ten years before Wonder delivered on his promise, but it was well worth the wait.

Wonder released a song tribute to Dr. King, titled 'Happy Birthday' in 1980 on the critically acclaimed 'Hotter than July' album.

The song was a resounding success and played a major role in creating MLK Day.

Wonder did a four-month tour with Bob Marley and Gil Scott-Heron in 1980 to campaign for the cause.

On January 15, 1981, Stevie Wonder along with Diana Ross and Jesse Jackson at the National Mall in Washington DC spoke to over 50,000 people in support of a holiday for Dr. King.

The following year, Wonder and Mrs. King presented a petition to the Speaker of the House with six million signatures in support of making Dr. King’s Birthday a national holiday.

It was the biggest petition at the time.

A year later, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill on November 2, 1983, that officially made Dr. King's birthday a national celebration.

Now, 40 years later, the nation still pauses to reflect on the legacy and achievements of Dr. King each year.

Even with the national holiday in place, Wonder would like to see more progressive changes made in the United States.

To commemorate 40 years since the release of the famous "Happy Birthday" song, Wonder posted a video sharing his thoughts on Dr. King and the state of the world.

Forty years ago today, I was marching in the cold and snowy streets of Washington, D.C., where thousands of people all believed in the right and the power to convince Congress that this national holiday was needed — not just to honor this man of peace, but to honor the principle of peace and unity.” Wonder said. “Forty years ago, we marched, and then we peacefully entered the Capitol to explore ways to reach across the aisle.”

For the remainder of the video, though, Wonder is less optimistic in his reflection.

Forty years, what have we done for the planet?" Wonder said. "How have we really helped each other? Where has poverty been eliminated, why are guns still protected, and why has hate been elevated? Truthfully, we’ve done very little in 40 years."
Now it is time for us to grow the [fuck] up and get out of our virtual delusions that sell murder, mayhem, terrorism, and hate…Dr. King, I wish I could say you were here. But it feels like we did not deserve you then, and we’re not much better now.”

Wonder has long been drained by the racist overtones that plague America. During an interview with Oprah in 2020, Wonder announced his intention to move to Ghana along with his family.

His decision was inspired by the desire to feel accepted and loved without reason, something he felt was impossible in America.

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