Every year, we celebrate and commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy on the third Monday of January. The holiday always falls between Jan. 15 and Jan. 21, aligning it with the date of King’s birthday, Jan. 15.
But it hasn’t always been this way. MLK Day officially became a federal holiday with the passage of a 1983 law, and it was first observed in 1986.
Some people have wondered if Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday,” which includes King’s name in the lyrics, is connected to the holiday. One social media post from 2022’s MLK Day claimed that the song was written to promote the movement to make MLK Day a federal holiday.
Did Stevie Wonder produce the song “Happy Birthday” to support making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday?
“Happy Birthday” song lyrics, and album vinyl sleeve for “Hotter than July”
Kevin Fellezs, Ph.D., an associate professor of music and African American studies at Columbia University
Yes, Stevie Wonder did produce the song “Happy Birthday” to support making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.
WHAT WE FOUND
Stevie Wonder was heavily involved in the movement to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday. His song “Happy Birthday” is explicit in its lyrics that King’s birthday should be celebrated as a national holiday.
The second verse of the song begins, “I just never understood / How a man who died for good / Could not have a day that would / Be set aside for his recognition.” That verse then ends by naming the man in question: “For in peace our hearts will sing / Thanks to Martin Luther King.”
The song was part of Wonder’s 1980 album “Hotter than July,” and was released as the album’s fourth single in 1981. The original vinyl sleeve for the album, the Atlanta History Center says, directly advocated for King’s birthday to become a national holiday.
“I and a growing number of people believe that it is time for our country to adopt legislation that will make January 15, Martin Luther King's birthday, a national holiday, both in recognition of what he achieved and as a reminder of the distance which still has to be traveled,” Wonder wrote on the sleeve. “Join me in the observance of January 15, 1981, as a national holiday. Stevland Morris a/k/a Stevie Wonder”
According to Motown Records, the record label which released the song, “Happy Birthday” became the signature song of the campaign.
But Wonder didn’t wait until 1981 to get involved.
“He had already been working on it for a couple of years along with Coretta King,” said Kevin Fellezs, Ph.D., an assistant professor of music and African American studies at Columbia University.
After a bill to observe the day failed to pass the House of Representatives by five votes in 1979, public support for the bill continued to grow “in no small part due to musician Stevie Wonder,” says the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The musician appeared alongside Coretta Scott King in rallies many times over the next few years. Motown Records says he led a march of 100,000 in Washington, D.C., in 1981, and he took part in another rally at the Washington Monument in 1983.
By the time a bill that would designate King’s birthday a national holiday returned to the House floor in 1983, Coretta Scott King, the Congressional Black Caucus and Stevie Wonder had worked together to present the chamber with a petition of 6 million signatures in support of the bill.
The bill easily passed the House, but was briefly held up in the Senate. When Wonder took part in the Aug. 27, 1983, rally for the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, the bill had still not yet passed the Senate. He told the crowd to join him in urging their senators to vote yes on the bill before leading the crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
The bill eventually passed the Senate, and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in November 1983. The holiday was first observed in 1986.