Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and the road to MLK Day

Today would have been the 94th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a long road to the third Monday of the month when all 50 states will observe a federal holiday named in his honor. Largely owed for making the dream of MLK Day a reality is Stevie Wonder: Back in 1980, he wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott-Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK.

Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to participate, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (Marley had been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill which was how Scott-Heron came to participate. In his memoir The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron details his own journey with music and activism, as he retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.

The Hotter Than July tour brought Scott-Heron and Wonder to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television, and the job fell to Wonder, with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the shocking news to an arena of music fans.

“For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon: how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”   Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of the official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia

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