After a bill was introduced to Congress to make King’s birthday, January 15th, a national holiday, private citizens took up the cause, including entertainers like Stevie Wonder.
President Ronald Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and the holiday was first observed on January 20, 1986. Though several states resisted at first, the holiday was finally observed by all 50 States in 2000.
In this excerpt from his memoir written before he died last year, Gil Scott-Heron talks about when he toured with Stevie Wonder to establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday in the US.
Memphis, Tennessee was only 90 miles west of Jackson, my childhood home. But Memphis was as far away as the north pole in my mind. The history that we were given about it was done in light pencil that hopscotched its way to a semi-solid landing with Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sun Records considered itself the fuse that lit the 1950s with Elvis and rock’n’roll. With Carla and Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding, Stax Records brought blues to the hit parade with hooks and horns and a solid beat, evolving into Al Green and Willie Mitchell. Memphis meant music.
And unless you stop to think for a minute, you might forget that it was in Memphis that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was shot and killed on a motel balcony on 4 April 1968. Stevie Wonder did not forget. In 1980, Stevie joined with the members of the Black Caucus in the US congress to speak out for the need to honour the day King was born, to make his birthday a national holiday.
The campaign began in earnest on Halloween of 1980 in Houston, Texas, with Stevie’s national tour supporting a new LP called Hotter than July, featuring the song Happy Birthday, which advocated a holiday for King. I arrived in Houston in the early afternoon to join the tour as the opening act. By 15 January 1981, King’s birthday, I had been working on the Hotter than July tour for 10 weeks.