“You know it doesn’t make much sense, there ought to be a law against anyone who takes offense at a day in your celebration,” Stevie Wonder wonders to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Happy Birthday”, the final track on 1980’s Hotter Than July.

The track was born of more than a decade of frustration. The famed civil rights activist had been assassinated in 1968, and the campaign to mark his birthday, January 15th, with a national holiday began not long after. Despite widespread efforts, however, the holiday wasn’t signed into law until 1983, and wasn’t officially observed for the first time until 1986.

In 1980, Wonder, already a veteran creator of social justice-minded music, gave the campaign a boost with “Happy Birthday”. The song was later released as a single in the U.K. (though not in the U.S.) in 1981. Both an unfiltered rebuke of MLK Day opponents and a contagious celebratory anthem, the song quickly became a sort of rallying cry for the campaign.

As the song grew in popularity, so did the MLK Day movement. Today, we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday of January, every January, and several generations of Americans have grown up learning his message.

On paper, it sounds like a win. The fact that MLK Day exists points the ship in the right direction, but anyone who’s been paying attention knows that there is still an untold amount of work to be done in order to reach King’s storied dream for our country.

Wonder, now in his ’70s, continues to use his influence to move the fight for truth and equality forward. In 2021, he published an open letter to the late Dr. King in which he contemplated how far things had come, and how far we still had to go to make his dream a reality. As Stevie Wonder remembered in his letter to MLK,

I met you when I was 14 years of age. You were a true hero and became an inspiration. I’ve been blessed to write songs of love, hope, and motivation—many of them inspired by your life. More than any award that I’ve ever received, I want you to know that I’m thankful how you influenced my place of love, which allowed me to try to push the needle of love and equality forward. It is painful to know that needle has not moved one iota. For 36 years, we’ve had a holiday honoring your birthday and principles, yet you would not believe the lack of progress. It makes me physically sick.

I am sick that politicians try to find an easy solution to a four-hundred-year problem. I am sick of some people using God for a convenience rather than a commitment. I am sick of lies and deceit that dominate our reality. I am sick that truth is struggling to be heard and defended. What we say has not been what we do, and this country must reconcile our words and deeds. Until we turn our mouth movement into righteous action, we’re doing our nation, God, and your memory an injustice. Until what we say is what we do, there is no truth. It is just repeating and rewriting history, just as we have for the last four hundred years. 

Read that letter here and celebrate MLK Day with “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder below.

 Stevie Wonder – “Happy Birthday”

Stevie Wonder – “Happy Birthday” – Lyrics

You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration

‘Cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you

And I’m sure you would agree
What could fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party
on the day you came to be

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday

I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition

Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion

And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace, our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday

Why has there never been a holiday
Where peace is celebrated
All throughout the world
The time is overdue
For people like me and you
Who know the way to truth
Is love and unity to all God’s children

It should be a great event
And the whole day should be spent
In full remembrance
Of those who lived and died
for the oneness of all people

So let us all begin
We know that love can win
Let it out, don’t hold it in
Sing it loud as you can

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Ooh yeah
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday

We know the key to unity of all people
Is in the dream that you had so long ago
That lives in all of the hearts of people
That believe in unity
We’ll make the dream become a reality
I know we will
Because our hearts tell us so

Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday
Happy birthday

View Lyrics