The Wonder of King

{REPOSTING – Two powerful voices that intersected and continue to inspire.}

MLK - Wonder PicMonkey Collage

It was January 15, 1981 at a massive concert-rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C, and one king was about to sing happy birthday to another.

Stevie Wonder, a legendary singer and activist, had decided to launch an unsolicited musical campaign to add Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to the list of national holidays. It was an effort started when Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) first proposed legislation for a commemorative holiday four days after King was assassinated in 1968, but it had been stalled for fifteen years.

Wonder, however, intended to sing it into law with a single he had written especially for the cause and we had his back.

The crowd was thicker than thick although the temperature was grazing thirty. Back on campus later, we would hear that there were tens of thousands in attendance, but we weren’t counting. Just noting that strangers were so close they seemed like family and no one fought for space that wasn’t there as we breathed each other’s air, wore each other’s perfume, tasted each other’s Doublemint gum, and watched our white-puffed exhalations crash together.

Bearing bitter cold to honor him who honored us with his courage and relentless reach for justice and freedom, I was bundled in thermal layers, a fake fur bomber jacket and my boyfriend’s arms. His chin was in my fro and I thought I heard him whisper that King was really here.

After speeches by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Gil Scott Heron, and several other key black figures, Stevie was guided to the piano where he chuckled deeply and tapped the mike. “Hello, hello, are you out there?”

We screamed yes, yes, YES with velocity and purpose, but even a blind man could feel the electric energy of the animated crowd.

With a mile-long smile, his head swaying feverishly, Stevie, possessed, punched keys for two whole minutes of interlude and with almost numb-from-the-cold feet, we started doing the two-step and the bump as best we could in cramped quarters.

That funky cadence burned into our eardrums may still make it hard to sing the traditional happy birthday song the regular way.

Stevie wonder “Happy Birthday to Ya” song

As he finally found his way to the lyrics, pictures of Dr. King flashed on the screen behind him. A photographic tale of a gifted orator on a mission who opened hearts and minds. Who tirelessly stared injustice down with determination and reason. No ornate robes or diamond-and-ruby crusted crowns. Just the sure, solid passion of a man who wanted the right things for the right reasons.

Not today, I think he would have said now to inequality, prejudice and White privilege.

Are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there? Wonder asked, making it a new part of the song to rhythmic claps in time with music, shoulders and torsos gyrating heads bobbing with their own sense of invincibility.

It was a party and a prayer.

A scatter of snow fell in my hair and my boyfriend stared at me like he wanted to kiss me until I guided his eyes back to Stevie and Martin on screen.

I stole a glance up at him, and then let my mind return to the moment too. Not worrying about papers due, tuition increases, life after graduation, or whether he and I would go the distance.

Just the dream, the dream, the dream and the King who wasn’t just our hero, but our heart.

“Come on now, sing along with me,” Wonder encouraged through a laugh. Although many of us were born between civil right marches and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you couldn’t tell us we missed the sit-ins, the boycotts, sacrifice, or the original reciting of the I Have a Dream speech. It was in our DNA. And so was Stevie’s song for Martin, which had been playing non-stop on campus radio for weeks, and we sang, and sang and sang until our throats were nearly raw. Lamenting along with Stevie over why anyone would take offense at the idea of a Dr. King holiday since he was all about peace throughout the world, replacing the “you” in “Happy birthday to you” to “ya” in the funky hook.

We sang to King, we sang to each other, we sang to the race relations dream that is still unfolding, and when Wonder continued his tour through the South where most of the resistance naturally thrived; performing that MLK Jr Day anthem song and spreading awareness of the cause, parts of us went with him.

On January 20, 1986, I was watching my almost just-one year-old daughter nap when he headlined the commemorating concert at the first official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in D.C., remembering with a smile that cold day in 1981 at the National Mall when one king sang happy birthday to the other.

7 thoughts on “The Wonder of King

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