In one of those weird, under-reported facts, the origin of the third Monday in January when all 50 states are set to observe the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929) is not widely acknowledged, but it is in fact a musician we may largely thank for the creation of a federal holiday in the name of MLK. Back in 1980, Stevie Wonder wrote his pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote an idea first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The city to city tour was ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures which had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring the day for MLK. Of course it took some more years, more activist effort, more songs, and more applied pressure for the idea to catch on and the day to become a reality.
“Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Wonder’s Hotter Than July album which also features “Master Blaster,” his tribute to Bob Marley. The reggae giant was also scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published memoir, The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism; he retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song. In a a strictly horrific twist of fate, the tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, California, where they were playing in the name of King (as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana) on the night John Lennon was assassinated. The story of the evening is better read in Scott-Heron’s book, though here’s a clip of Wonder delivering the news to the assembled crowd, back in the time before we carried our own tracking devices.
Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance. On Monday January 20, cities all across the country will attempt to honor Dr. King’s dream the best they can, given our nation’s state of economic and moral poverty. In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia, the King Center, has a full weekend schedule of events culminating on Monday (the King Center’s events are dedicated to discussing and teaching non-violence). In San Francisco on January 20, there is an all-day celebration of King’s life, its theme Now is the Time, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. Among the events scheduled are author readings sponsored by Marcus Books, America’s oldest black-owned bookstore engaged in a final push to preserve culture and community in the City’s historic Fillmore District. San Francisco is generally struggling with displacement of its African American population, as well as other issues related to the City’s techsploitation of housing and services. City of Santa Monica hosts Southern California’s largest King Day event; this year’s theme is Unity in the Community. I am permanently dumfounded by the American shame that is Skid Row LA: Just spitting distance from the unfathomable displays of wealth that define Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the Westside, human life and dignity are compromised there everyday.
Much like Dr. King’s vision, justice and equality in our democracy remain very much a dream. But wherever we go, whatever we do that day, let us not only continue to dream of love and peace, but to take an action toward eradicating poverty, eliminating racial injustice, and loving our fellows, in the name of MLK.