"I just never understood How a man who died for good Could not have a day that would Be set aside for his recognition" Full Lyrics by Stevie Wonder.
It's been 40 years since the Reagan Administration signed the law to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday. Stevie Wonder played a significant role in making it happen.
The 1980 song had represented the start of Wonder's campaign to make the birthday of renowned peace activist, Martin Luther King Jr, into a federal holiday. For three years Wonder put his life on hold and dedicated tours, rallies and marches to bring his vision to life – a quest that would establish the first holiday in the US that honoured a black American.
By 1980, with the release of Happy Birthday's call to action, Wonder was one of the most important musicians in the country, and Dr. King's birthday became a rallying point to codify his activism, says Nelson George. "People were looking at that point to honour King and his movement and the change in America."
But the America that King was murdered in, in 1968, was different from that of 1980, with civil rights struggles morphing into new challenges like equal opportunity in housing and education. The newly-elected Regan administration was cool on civil rights issues, and Reagan initially spoke out against the idea of a national holiday, resurrecting the old innuendo about King being a subversive communist, just as civil rights opponents in the 1950s had.
"There were people then and probably still now, who just didn't want a black person to have a national holiday," George says. Many in the US also balked at the idea of making a holiday for someone who wasn't a president or a government official, let alone a social activist. "There were a lot of threads working against this happening," he adds.
Dr. King once said' "the Arc of the Moral Universe is Long but it Bends Toward Justice". We have a way to go, but someday it will happen. Happy Birthday.