2023 marks the 40th year anniversary of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King‘s being made into a federal holiday. But did you know the fight to push Congress into making Dr. King’s birthday a holiday for all was sided by Stevie Wonder‘s “Happy Birthday” song?
In 1981, Wonder wrote the Happy Birthday song, not just to celebrate Dr. King, but as a protest song to Congress. Just take a look at the lyrics of the first verse:
You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration
‘Cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you
And I’m sure you would agree
It couldn’t fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party on the day you came to be
As the Grammy-award-winning singer sings in the bridge, “Why has there never been a holiday/Where peace is celebrated/All throughout the world” that was the biggest question: Why not have a holiday to celebrate a man who fought for the civil right for Black people and many others across the world? Eventually, the bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan establishing the national holiday. The holiday was first observed in 1986, and it is now observed every third Monday in January.
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However, years later has the message of Wonder been lost in the song? Many now use just the Happy Birthday part of the song to celebrate someone’s special day, failing to remember why this song is so important. Urban One founder and Chairwoman Ms. Cathy Hughes joins the Russ Parr Morning Show to explain the significance of the Happy Birthday song and why you should not forget the lyrics of the song.
Ms. Hughes: You know it’s so interesting Russ because even when people start to sing the traditional Happy Birthday song, somebody will invariably say, you know, let’s do the Stevie Wonder version. Everybody, I know sings the Stevie Wonder “Happy birthday” song. But no one, it’s been 40 years. People’s memories get a little, you know forgetful. No one you know discusses “why are we singing the Stevie Wonder version of Happy Birthday? Why would Stevie decide to rework, rewrite, you know, we record a classic.” It was because he was so ticked off that once again Congress in 1979 had voted not to make Doctor King’s birthday a national holiday. When you revisit the lyrics, you realize it’s a protest song and because of that protest song and the popularity of it, that could help us win, and turn Congress into a yes vote for it to become a national holiday.
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