Political Songs | Happy Birthday – Stevie Wonder

The musician campaigned for years, at times putting his career on hold, for Martin Luther King Jr Day to be made a public holiday. His campaign included writing and performing a song.

It was exactly a year ago to the day, on Thursday 16 August 2018. Although it was late afternoon, New Frame’s news editor was still in her pyjamas; the rest of New Frame’s knackered, but anxious editorial staff were in her kitchen. That’s where the best wi-fi was for South Africa’s newest and then still office-less online news publication.

Computer bugs had been pushing the launch of New Frame – planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Marikana massacre, in which the South African police had killed 34 striking mineworkers six years earlier – later and later. Finally, the visual editor got hold of the techies from the Radical Software IT Workers Union (really their name) in Hyderabad, India, who had designed New Frame’s website for free. The subcontinent comrades flicked the switch and the site went live as the sun set over Johannesburg.

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Like good journalists, the New Frame crowd got totally smashed that evening.

I’m no prophet but it’s safe to predict that exercise, the getting pissed part, will be repeated tonight at the bar where I play a fortnightly all-vinyl DJ set. One song that will certainly feature as we celebrate New Frame’s first anniversary is Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday.

But this upbeat, uplifting song is actually rooted in an assassination on 4 April 1968, one many feared could unleash civil war in the United States. 

‘Silence and shock’

James Earl Ray shot and killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr that day in Memphis, Tennessee. A 17-year-old Stevie Wonder, already a teen music sensation, was being driven to his home in Detroit from the Michigan School for the Blind when he heard the news of King’s assassination on the car radio. 

“His driver quickly turned off the radio and they drove on in silence and shock, tears streaming down Wonder’s face,” wrote journalist Marcus Baram in his beautifully told story about Happy Birthday in Medium magazine in 2015.

A devastated Wonder, who had met King two years earlier at a freedom rally in Chicago, flew to Atlanta for the pastor’s funeral five days later as angry riots erupted in several cities around the US. 

African-American congressman John Conyers, who had just introduced a bill to honour King by making his birthday a national holiday, was also at the funeral. Inspired by this, Wonder took on what would become a decade and a half-long crusade to establish Martin Luther King (MLK) Day. 

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They were not alone. Trade unions saw King as a working-class hero because he firmly believed that civil and labour rights were closely intertwined. Throughout the US, workers added MLK Day as a paid holiday to regular demands in their negotiations with bosses.

By 1977, Wonder had written the first version of Happy Birthday, campaigning for MLK Day.

“Conyers’ bill languished in Congress for over a decade, through years of anti-war protests, Watergate and political corruption, stifled by inertia and malaise at the end of the 1970s,” wrote Baram in Medium. At last, in 1979 pro-union president Jimmy Carter endorsed the bill. But Congress refused, led by reactionary senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. He denounced King as a “lawbreaker” who had been “manipulated by communists”.

Wonder put his career on hold to run his popularising MLK Day campaign. It included coast-to-coast concerts and rallies, petitions, congressional testimonies and, most effectively, a new version of Happy Birthday. The song became the centrepiece of his 19th album, Hotter Than July, released in 1980.

I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition

Wonder wondered with reason:

Why has there never been a holiday
Where peace is celebrated
All throughout the world
The time is overdue

The record’s sleeve notes further urged fans to support the holiday bill: “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.”

By 1981, 12 states had made King’s birthday a local holiday. These included New York, Ohio, Florida and Kentucky.

But that same year, the Americans elected right-winger Ronald Reagan as president, leading Wonder to rightly express his concern about the “disturbing drift in the country towards war, bigotry, poverty and hatred”. Despite the singer and his team collecting six million signatures in favour of MLK Day, Reagan and his conservative ilk stubbornly continued to oppose the bill.

Public pressure

By 1983, mounting public pressure ensured that even Reagan came around to supporting the bill. Helms was defeated by 78 to 22 votes and Reagan signed the bill into law in November of that year.

The holiday was finally officially observed in 1986, with the third Monday in January becoming a public holiday in the US, known as Martin Luther King Jr Day. 

It was the first holiday to commemorate a national figure who wasn’t a president and who was an African-American. Wonder headlined the massive concert held to celebrate that day. 

When asked by US media organisation National Public Radio in 2017 about his involvement, Wonder said he “felt that a man who had fought for the economic, social and civil rights for all people should be recognised for the greatness that he did, and for those like himself who lived and died for that, should be recognised”.

Wonder also gave the best reason for being involved in progressive politics: “I just saw it as being the right thing to do.”

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