As the nation celebrates what would’ve been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s eighty-fifth birthday today, the story of how two legendary, influential musicians used their talents to join forces with Coretta Scott King in securing a national holiday for her husband has been given little light. The arduous efforts of Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron can’t be overlooked. They used their respective platforms to create a massive movement to gain overwhelming support to pass a federal law making Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. After the initial introduction of the measure by Congressman John Conyers Jr. and former Senator Edward Brooke in 1971, the bill languished in Congress for eight years until Jimmy Carter became President in 1979.
President Carter threw his weight behind the movement and bill, but it was defeated in the House of Representatives the same year. Undeterred, Mrs. King continued to galvanize support around the cause. She testified in front of Congress several times in addition to traveling around the country and collecting endorsements from state and local political figures. After acquiring three million signatures of citizens wanting to honor Dr. King’s legacy and being denied, it was clear that The King Memorial Center and Mrs. King needed another vehicle to accomplish their goal.
Stevie Wonder decided to get involved with the movement. Upon releasing his Dr. King tribute song, “Happy Birthday,” Wonder made it his mission to obtain a federal holiday for Dr. King through his Hotter Than July tour in late 1980. And here is where the story begins.
Legendary producer and engineer Malcolm Cecil worked alongside Wonder and Scott-Heron as they embarked on the tour to help spur on the passage of the bill in Congress. On the occasion of the holiday, I spoke with Malcolm Cecil about Wonder and Scott-Heron’s relationship, the tour, and the power of music and artists when they unite for a common purpose.
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