“There ought to be a law against, anyone who takes offense, at a day in your celebration” Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder wrote Happy Birthday, featured on his 1980 album, Hotter Than July, to encourage people to support making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (MLK Day) a federal holiday. Stevie Wonder’s song, Happy Birthday, had monumental impact, it helped push public support for Dr. King’s birthday to become a federal holiday. In keeping with obstacles strategically placed in front of Black people to prevent progress, making Dr. King’s birthday an official holiday was an extraordinary undertaking. Dr. King was targeted and vilified in the 1960’s by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and the vilification continued after King’s assignation, with vehement opposition to making Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. Apparently some thought Dr. King could have a dream but, not a day.

Notably against the federal holiday to honor Dr. King, was Senator John McCain, who would later come to realize the error of his ways regarding MLK Day. The late great John McCain said, “Even in this most idealistic of nations, we do not always take kindly to being reminded of what more we can do, or how much better we can be, or who else can be included in the promise of America. We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I made myself long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona. We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing.” Arizona lost the Super Bowl due to its refusal to observe Dr. King’s birthday, it seems that money, morality, or both, encouraged folks to evolve on observing MLK Day…eventually.

We are hopeful that self reflection and a willingness to admit wrong doing is not completely lost on the current Republican Party – a Party that refuses to acknowledge the racial pain of America’s past or present, just like they refuse to acknowledge democratic election outcomes. Dr. King said, “no lie can live forever,” however Republicans seem hell bent on burning down democracy in order to keep the lies of white supremacy alive.

MLK Day was first celebrated as a federal holiday in 1986, however, it took years before all states would get their act together and observe the federal holiday, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Take for example Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, states that celebrated Dr. King and Confederate Robert E. Lee on the same day. Hmmm, honoring a Confederate who fought against America and for slavery alongside Dr. King is outlandish yet, par for course when it comes to the “lost cause” of acknowledging America’s hateful heritage. It wasn’t until 2000 that all states actually observed MLK Day.

Stevie Wonder is a socially conscious icon, who continues to use his platform for progress, even when that progress isn’t popular. He redefined a nursery rhyme into a campaign to honor and recognize Dr. King. Stevie Wonder gave us a birthday song for the ages with Happy Birthday. When singing “Happy Birthday” on anyone’s birthday, most (not all) but most Black people will sing Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday. As author and economist, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, explained on the Sunday Show with Johnathan Capehart, “It’s not just a song, it’s a story of a people and persistence.”

Happy Birthday

We know the key to unity of all people
Is in the dream that you had so long ago
That lives in all of the hearts of people
That believe in unity
We’ll make the dream become a reality
I know we will
Because our hearts tell us so

Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday

Written by: Stevie Wonder. Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.