R&B king recalls how song led to MLK Day

Seth Freedland

For most people, 17 Grammy awards, an Oscar and the third-most top 10 hits after The Beatles and Elvis Presley would be enough to define success. But for R&B legend Stevie Wonder, spearheading the campaign to make the Rev. Martin Luther King Day a national holiday stands alone as his proudest achievement.

Wonder discussed his labor of love in helping to found MLK Day during Monday’s celebration at Thorne Auditorium on the Chicago Campus.

“I was 5 when I first heard of MLK,” said Wonder, who was blind at birth and listened to coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott on the radio. “I asked, ‘Why don’t they like colored people? What’s the difference? I still can’t see the difference.

“Want to know why? Because there is no difference.”

Wonder said he wrote a happy birthday song for King in 1979. The song, plainly titled “Happy Birthday, ” ultimately would begin the national holiday campaign.

Wonder’s next move was to call King’s widow, who gave her approval for the holiday but expressed concerns about the conservative politics. Wonder shrugged off her worries.

“The spirit of what we’re talking about is so much bigger than politics,” Wonder said.

Theresa Cropper, dean of students at the Law School, worked alongside Wonder through two marches, up until the bill was passed in 1983. She met him at a gospel concert and was awestruck by his intelligence.

“I thought it was beautiful that Steve was so smart,” she said. “He wasn’t just using his celebrity.”

In his speech — complemented by selections from his songs — Wonder spoke at length on deal-making in Washington.

“I didn’t know he was that involved with the legislative aspect,” said Janet Harding of Chicago. “I’m impressed with how deep he is. He wasn’t just part of this thing for show.”

Admitting “no shame in our game,” Wonder said he put his own stamp on the political process.

“(U.S. Rep.) John Conyers (D-Mich.) said that the only way he’d help the King holiday bill was if I taught him the chords to ‘My Cherie Amour,'” Wonder said. “B flat, B flat 7 — ‘OK, you can use my office.'”

Wonder also recalled running into President Bush at last year’s Presidential Gala.

“I remember Bush waving at me,” Wonder said. “I thought it was a compliment. I didn’t see it, of course — I wasn’t looking in his direction.”

Cropper left no doubt on Wonder’s impact for the creation of MLK Day.

“Stevie Wonder funded the marches, the legislative strategy sessions, everything,” she said. “It couldn’t have happened without him.”

Wonder was on stage behind President Reagan during the signing, but then, as he put it, “nature called,” and when he returned, the photo shoot was over.

“But being in the pictures doesn’t matter,” Wonder said. “The joy was in the victory. And the victory was for every human being in country and in the world.”