Stevie Sings for Martin Luther King

If we ignore 1979’s soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants (though it featured “Send One Your Love,” 28 on the Billboard R&B chart), when Hotter Than July came out in 1980 it marked Stevie Wonder’s first album of newly recorded music since Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. It was his longest break between albums since he started cutting LPs at age 12.

Critics don’t hold Hotter Than July in as high a regard as the classic Songs, though it does include an oddly charming imitation of a country singer (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”) and a reggae number inspired by Bob Marley (“Master Blaster (Jammin’)”). The album is more important for its historical significance: It marked the beginning of Wonder’s three-year campaign to create a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The single “Happy Birthday,” which hit No.2 in the UK, states Wonder’s position: “There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration,” he sings before the chorus, which goes “Happy birthday! Happy birthday to you!”

The jubilance of “Happy Birthday” contrasts sharply with bitter testimony from congressional opponents of the holiday, who from 1979 until Ronald Reagan signed the law in 1983 were busy attacking King’s character. Moderates like Reagan tended to oppose the holiday on economic grounds (the Civil Service Commission estimated in 1979 that the government would lose $195 million in revenue if businesses were shut down for a day). But a handful of extreme conservatives from both parties employed red-baiting rhetoric against King that sounds uncomfortably similar to the accusations of socialist subversion leveled against Barack Obama by everyone from Senator John McCain to Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia today. Holiday supporters were able to use that sort of invective to their advantage in the early 1980s by associating it with all of their opponents—and shaming moderates to their side. It’s a tactic that would probably not work in today’s extremely polarized political climate.

The first bill to create a holiday for King was introduced by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan in 1968, four days after King was assassinated. Though Conyers introduced a bill in every Congress from then on, writes historian David Chappell in his recent book Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr., except for a House exploratory committee hearing in 1975 the holiday went nowhere until 1979, when Jimmy Carter announced his support at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church—where Daddy King and his son had pastored during the movement—on the day before what would have been the younger King’s 50th birthday. Carter was on hand that day to receive the Nonviolent Peace Prize from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded by King’s widow Coretta in 1968. Launching and maintaining the King Center, continuing her advocacy for international peace, and getting the holiday passed were Coretta’s life goals, writes her sister in the 2012 biography Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King. Carter’s speech was uninspired, but his support invigorated the holiday campaign.

In late March and June, Strom Thurmond invited what Coretta would later shrewdly call “the traveling right-wing circus” to testify at Senate hearings on the proposed holiday. Among the witnesses were Rep. Larry McDonald, a Democrat and member of the John Birch Society; Alan Stang, author of the red-baiting tract It’s Very Simple: The True Story of Civil Rights; and Rep. John Ashbrook, a Republican from rural Ohio whose career was “almost a catalogue of lost causes” according to the 1982 Almanac of American Politics. The witnesses testified that King “sought not to work through the law but around it, with contempt and violence.” He was a racist who supported “discrimination in jobs and housing so long as the discrimination was in favor of blacks.” His “friendship and collaboration with totalitarian Communists and racists” were blights on his good name, which, anyway, was based on a “fictional assessment.” His work was no more than “agitation and manipulation for goals dictated by hatred and envy.” “When will politicians learn to accept history as it really happened instead of history as told by the Washington Post?” asked Ashbrook in a statement. Supporters were forced to kill the holiday bill at the last minute to preempt a bit of sabotage—an amendment that would have moved the tribute day to a Sunday, with the same status as Stephen Foster Memorial Day, Pan American Aviation Day, and Leif Erikson Day.

Wonder put out Hotter Than July in September of the next year. His four-month tour got off to a bad start. Bob Marley, who was supposed to be the opening act, checked into New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center with the illness that would kill him six months later. Wonder recruited writer and poet Gil Scott-Heron to fill in for Marley, a stint Scott-Heron recounted in his 2012 memoir, The Last Holiday. Wonder had racial politics on his mind throughout the tour. After his stage manager was beat up in Boston, Wonder “stopped the show to review the city’s record on racism.” For “six or seven heart-stopping, pin-dropping minutes when the Boston Garden was like the sound of fifteen thousand people who had just inhaled: there wasn’t even the sound of anyone breathing as the brother spoke. You would remember not the words, but how Boston felt. Like it had been read from stones dotted with Braille.”

The tour’s halfway point was a rally in Washington, D.C. “One thing that knocked me out,” writes Scott-Heron, was “how much work was involved in organizing a fucking rally.” Wonder had spent the previous month, which had been set aside for rest, putting it together. After Jesse Jackson spoke on law and civil-rights and Diana Ross calmed a nervous high school student as he read his prize-winning essay on Dr. King, Wonder gave a speech. “Why Stevie Wonder, as an artist? Why should I be involved in this great cause? … As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us. I’d like to ask all of you just for one moment, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr. Martin Luther King.”

When hearings resumed in 1982, Coretta Scott King, attempting to minimize moderate objections, centered her testimony on the conservative fringe that indulged in “character assassination and infantile name calling,” The following year, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina encouraged the perception that all of the holiday’s foe’s were extremists.

During a filibuster that began on October 3 and ended on October 4, and Senate debates on the 18th, Helms called King “an action-oriented Marxist” and “Marxist-Leninist” whose “whole movement included Communists at the highest possible levels.” He called for the FBI to release its records on King (the FBI monitored King closely throughout the 1960s, and in 1963 the head of the domestic intelligence division had called him “the most dangerous Negro in America”). Helms advised Ted Kennedy to heed “his dead brother who was president and his dead brother who was Attorney General,” both of them having allegedly warned King to sever his connections to alleged communists. Kennedy answered that he was “appalled” that Helms would “misappropriate the memory of my brother … as part of this smear campaign.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan held up a batch of documents Helms was using to criticize King, proclaimed them a “packet of filth,” and let them fall to the floor.

The controversy was too much for most moderates—The New York Times editorial board withdrew opposition one week after Helms’s filibuster—and the bill passed 78 to 22. All but one Deep South senator voted yea, including Thurmond, whose post-Voting Rights Act electorate was now one-third black. Ronald Reagan signed it into law on November 2.

Chappell hasn’t written a hagiography. In a chapter titled “Public Reckonings with King’s Character,” he reminds us of unfolding posthumous revelations throughout the 1980s of King’s many flaws. The discovery of significant plagiarism in his dissertation prompted biographer David Garrow to remark “it’s disconcerting, because it is fundamentally, phenomenally out of character with my entire sense of the man.”  His many extramarital affairs became national news when former right-hand man Ralph Abernathy wrote about them in a 1989 memoir. That same King, however, had moved people to tears with his preaching, spent many nights in jail, and been hit, stabbed, and eventually murdered as he struggled to broaden the definition of “We the People.” In 1999, Americans told Gallup they admired him more than anyone except Mother Teresa. During the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last August, both the National Review and Think Progress claimed him for their side.

To contemporary Republicans, Barack Obama, despite his many advisers who once worked on Wall Street, his support of a lower corporate tax rate, and his insurer-friendly health care reform, is a socialist, one step away from a communist, a charge that fell out of fashion around the time of Helms’s filibuster. If one were to attempt to pass a holiday bill for Martin Luther King today, there is no doubt that the man who wrote that “Christianity was born among the poor and died among the rich” in graduate school and was killed organizing sanitation workers would also be called a socialist. Attempting to ignore moderate objections and highlight extreme ones, like Coretta Scott King did in the 1980s, or tapping into popular sentiment with upbeat songs like Stevie Wonder did, would probably not get many moderate legislators to change their minds, since there are now so few of them—the 112th Congress was the most polarized since 1879, according to DW-NOMINATE scores, a widely used measure of political ideology. In fact, Wonder is still writing political songs, his 2012 pro-Obama anthem “Keep Moving Forward” advocating for green energy, a jobs program, health care for the middle class, and universal college education. It will not age as well as “Happy Birthday,” but it still shames the socialist-baiters. “Keep moving forward, don’t turn it around,” Wonder sings, “Keep moving forward, don’t let them bring us down.”

You may also like