Above: Happy 80th, Dr. King.
By Joel Francis
Every few years, the calendar aligns so that my dad’s birthday lands on Martin Luther King Day. Most of the time, the extra day off works means we celebrate a bit longer. Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” is the perfect salute to these days, but it means even more this year, on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
King’s birthday was not a national holiday when Wonder penned this tribute. The song was a rallying point in the fight to establish King’s birthday as a holiday. Wonder performed the song at the Rally For Peace press conference in 1981, and wrote an essay about King that appeared on the album liner sleeve. Part of his words read:
“It is believed that for a man to lay down his life for the love of others is the supreme sacrifice. Jesus Christ by his own example showed us that there is no greater love. For nearly two thousand years now we have been striving to have the strength to follow that example. Martin Luther King was a man who had that strength. He showed us, non-violently, a better way of life, a way of mutual respect, helping us to avoid much bitter confrontation and inevitable bloodshed. We still have a long road to travel until we reach the world that was his dream. We in the United States must not forget either his supreme sacrifice or that dream.”
Wonder’s essay is accompanied by photos of King and the Civil Rights movement. The grim photos – which include depictions white police officers attacking black protesters – stand in contrast to the buoyant melody of the song. The synthesizers and drums may be dated, but the lyrics and sentiment capture the hope and love as well as U2’s more famous tribute. Wonder also understands that birthdays are about parties, so his homage to King is as much a celebration of life as a remembrance.
It was a touch disappointing to watch Wonder elect to perform “Higher Ground” at the “We Are One” concert that took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. two days before Obama’s inauguration. In a day rife with symbolism and historic importance, the significance of performing “Happy Birthday” would have been amazing. Then again, more people are probably familiar with “Higher Ground.” And Stevie Wonder never met my dad.