Stevie Wonder and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Photo: Getty

Fact Check | Is it true that Stevie Wonder played a role in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day becoming a federal holiday?

Every third Monday in January, the United States pauses for the federal holiday observance of the life of Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Did Stevie Wonder help make this dream a reality?

  /  01.15.2022

Every third Monday in January, the United States pauses for the federal holiday observance of the life of Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Born on Jan. 15, 1929, the Baptist minister, civil rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient left his mark enduringly in a brief 39 years. Beyond his roles as a father and husband, Rev. King served society by leading marches to advocate for desegregation. Additionally, his public speaking was convincing concerning policy change on behalf of numerous Black American equitable causes. 

For example, ahead of his untimely passing, more than 250,000 civil rights allies stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial for Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech — a fifth of whom were white. Even so, this globally renowned occasion was one of many within a legacy of overachieving. Despite experiencing the hardship of prejudice from being raised in the segregated South, Rev. King’s movements persisted nonviolently. The churchman’s teachings were inspired by his family’s Christian belief system and the peaceful philosophies of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

By 19, Dr. King received his B.A. degree from Morehouse College in sociology. He resumed his education at the multi-denominational academy of Crozer Theological Seminary, continuing his grandfather and father’s tradition of functioning in their community as a pastor. Dr. King was subsequently elected president of his predominantly white senior class ahead of graduating with a Bachelor of divinity. The academic continued his graduate studies at Boston University, where he met Coretta Scott, a scholar at the New England Conservatory of Music. Together, they blossomed as Rev. King completed his residency for his doctoral degree in systematic theology — later relocating to Scott’s home state of Alabama as husband and wife. 

Upon Dr. King being ordained as a Baptist minister in 1954, preceding foundational chapters became the blueprint to one of the most exceptional trajectories in American history. The reverend’s doctorate arrived by 1955 from a dissertation titled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” In time, the King parents of 2 daughters and 2 sons were at the helm of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, laying down roots. The family’s first household became a pillar that welcomed extended relatives, including neighborhood administrators, political figures, and even musicians. One ascending instrumentalist of the ’60s was 15-year-old Stevie Wonder. The humanitarian’s preaching and separate demonstrations, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, had a long-lasting effect on the Motown legend’s vigor. 

Claim: Is it true that Stevie Wonder played a role in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day becoming a federal holiday?

Rating: True.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021, Wonder requested the Biden-Harris administration create a “Truth Commission” facing racial inequality. Through a “Good Morning America” televised segment, the singer said, “Without truth, we cannot have accountability. Without accountability, we cannot have forgiveness. Without forgiveness, we cannot heal.” However, Wonder’s quest to rectify the responsibility of those who aimed to harm Rev. King has traversed several decades.  

Mrs. King suspected that her husband’s passing was by way of more than one racist killer, following the hero’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Some feel he suggested his fate the day before in church. The visiting minister addressed the volunteer state’s congregation — to aid the (then) inadequately accommodated Black American sanitation workers. History transcribed his final public appearance as follows: 

“I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land…”

National radio broadcasts of the preacher’s persisting statements were not uncommon, inspiring listeners and musicians like Wonder. However, the following Dr. King coverage was dissimilar. Per the Black Doctor’s website, “On the evening of [April 4, 1968], teen music phenom Stevie Wonder was on his way home to Detroit from the Michigan School for the Blind when the horrific news hit the radio: Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated… His driver quickly turned off the radio and they drove on in silence… in disbelief and tears.” During the subsequent Atlanta riots, Wonder took a flight to the deceased idol’s hometown to pay his respects ahead of his burial.

From there, the vocalist organized rallies with a call to action for Congress to help citizens celebrate Rev. King’s birthday formally as an American holiday. Medium documented Wonder’s racist encounter, “… he experienced first-hand the evils of segregation — he remembers someone shooting at [Motown’s] tour bus, just missing the gas tank.” Connected by mindsets and experiences, Wonder was on the front line garnering backing from luminaries like Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, and more. Each shared the ambition to bring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to fruition — in a period where there was documentation of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s disinformation campaigns, intimidation tactics, and threatening surveillance of Rev. King

Against Wonder’s concentrated efforts, The Atlantic reported a “… memo about [Dr.] King in direct conversation with the virulent racism of J. Edgar Hoover, who often cautioned against the rise of a ‘Black Messiah.'” This targeting of Black activism prevailed during his 48-year tenure as the director of the FBI. In contrast, Hoover’s abuse of authority was tied to the FBI’s COINTELPRO program and the Illinois chapter’s Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton’s assassination the year following Rev. King’s. Generationally, against any obstruction, Black music has uplifted the collective and inspired harmony in difficult periods. Wonder understood his power.

The National Museum of African American Music archived, “… just days after Dr. King’s assassination, Michigan congressman John Conyers introduced legislation to make a federal holiday… [Moveover] in 1979, Coretta Scott King testified before Congress, but it didn’t work.” For nearly two decades, the iconic performer supported Rev. King’s instructions of peacefulness in the mainstream and kept his widow involved in a chart-topping triumph. In 1980, with Mrs. King’s blessing, Wonder released the hit “Happy Birthday” in the minister’s memory. The song became equally popular internationally, cracking the top three of the U.K.’s Official Charts. Its success roused lawmakers to revisit the subject.

“Why should I be involved in this great cause? As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us. I’d like to ask all of you just for one moment… think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr. Martin Luther King,” Global Citizens wrote of Wonder’s 1981 response to his steady request. 

There was substantial resistance to block the holiday’s advancement in political atmospheres despite President Reagan signing legislation in 1983. Swift pushback ensued from several southern states, among other districts. According to the King Institute at Stanford University, “Public Law 98–144 designated the third Monday in January as an annual federal holiday in King’s honor, and the first official celebration took place on 20 January 1986.” Music’s unifying quality was exemplified by Wonder’s track “Happy Birthday” and the soloist’s determination to stand by his convictions. All fifty states did not make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day a publicly approved holiday until 2000. This year, 2022, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated on Monday, Jan. 17.




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