Though he’s one of the most gifted and important artists to have ever created popular music, Stevie’s legacy as a tireless and fearless advocate for justice may he even more powerful, and is too often overlooked. We should heed every word he says.
There's an important lesson for casual fans, or younger people who may not know Stevie’s greater legacy. Let's go back to a pivotal point in Stevie's legendary career. After a string of undeniable hits as Motown's signature teenage sensation, Stevie had a run of albums in the 70s that were the greatest back-to-back releases in pop music history. Each was a commercial and artistic triumph. In sequence, they were the most masterful run of pop recordings that will likely ever be released.
By the late 70s, Stevie had won so many Grammys that Paul Simon joked in 1976 (the only year in which Stevie was not up for Album of the Year) that he was thankful Stevie hadn't put out an album that year. Stevie's hits were so huge the Jackson 5 were his backup singers and you barely noticed them. He could have done anything next—almost anything would have won adulation or praise.
Instead, Stevie Wonder chose to bet his career, at its peak, on getting a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. While of course Coretta Scott King deserves pride of place as the moral force and guiding spirit behind the effort, Stevie was the most prominent and universally respected public figure outside the family to throw his full-throated support behind the effort.
And he didn’t just talk about it: Stevie showed up. He wooed members of Congress, signing autographs for their kids at private parties. The vote on the holiday failed to pass. The next year, it failed again. Stevie went from being adored at the Grammys to getting death threats. He held a concert on the National Mall, at great expense to himself. He wrote “Happy Birthday” in King’s honor & made it his next single. He continued to fight for the campaign, year after year.
Stevie organized across the country as he toured, gathering millions of signatures in support of the holiday. The fight took nearly a decade and a half, and reached its culmination just after Reagan had come into office & the political obstacles were strongest.
One of the great privileges of my life was getting to sit a few feet in front of Stevie at a small event as he told the group about his role in helping lead the effort. He mentioned the notorious signing event when Reagan reluctantly agreed to honor King ("since they seem bent on making making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day’s important enough that I would," Reagan said, before immediately jetting off to a private golf club that refused to admit Black members) and said that he was absent from the famous photo of the signing ceremony, even though he was present at the White House that day, because "I had to take a piss." Stevie made it clear the slight was anything but unintentional.
But ultimately, in November of 1983, the bill was officially signed, and Stevie Wonder and everyone in the movement emerged victorious. In 1986, the country slowly began observing the King holiday. Stevie had bet one of the biggest careers of all time on an unlikely cause. And he won.
The King family's fight, and the movements tireless efforts, achieved a victory that many thought would be impossible in their lifetimes.
Today, Stevie still exhorts us: don’t let them limit you to “just” an artist, or athlete, or entrepreneur, or doctor, or teacher, or whatever role is dictated to you by society. Be you and be an activist. Stevie bet his life’s work that it would pay off, and persevered through years of setbacks. And he prevailed, for Dr. King. Just as importantly, Stevie's voice hasn't dimmed one bit in the decades since, and he is, if anything, even more profound and striking in the clear moral demands he makes upon us all now. We must listen.