stevie wonder sings happy birthdayMartin Luther King, Jr. Day is right around the corner -- January 16 this year, one day after his actual birthday. And while most people consider it just another happy day off work (or a day for some parents of school children to scramble for childcare coverage), it's easy to forget how amazing it is that we actually have a national holiday that celebrates a civil rights leader. And did you know -- we actually owe this holiday partly to music legend Stevie Wonder!

The idea for a holiday honoring MLK started soon after his death, but Stevie Wonder pushed it into the spotlight in 1980 when he went on a campaign tour with his tribute song, "Happy Birthday." Yes, that Happy Birthday song! You've probably heard it before. And it's no surprise that one of the most inspiring, positive pop singers in America had a hand in making this holiday a reality.

The radical musician/poet Gil Scott-Heron (who died this past year and composed the famous poem, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised") wrote about Stevie Wonder's tour in his memoir, and it's exciting to hear this first-person account of the highlight of the tour, the Rally for Peace press conference at the Washington, D.C. Mall on January 15, 1981. Here's what Stevie said to the crowds:

It's fitting that we should gather here, for it was here that Martin Luther King inspired the entire nation and the world with his stirring words, his great vision both challenging and inspiring us with his great dream. People have asked, 'Why Stevie Wonder, as an artist?' Why should I be involved in this great cause? I'm Stevie Wonder the artist, yes, but I'm Steveland Morris, a man, a citizen of this country, and a human being. 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, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr Martin Luther King ...

Two years later, Ronald Regan signed the holiday into law. We see a lot of celebrities take on political causes and sometimes it comes across as self-indulgent. But I think this is one of the best examples of a pop star using his celebrity status for good. Stevie Wonder stood up for a cause that affected him personally -- and this rally actually led to real action.

I think a lot of people are still cynical about this holiday. We forget the reason behind the day off (guilty!), and others even resent the idea that we honor a civil rights leader with a holiday at all (SIGH). But every year we get an opportunity to get the day right. Watching the video of Stevie Wonder singing "Happy Birthday" to the cheering crowd is inspiring me to celebrate MLK day in a more meaningful way this year.

What do you usually do on MLK day?

 

Image via YouTube