How Gil Scott-Heron and Stevie Wonder set up Martin Luther King Day

african kings

From the Guardian: Memphis, Tennessee was only 90 miles west of Jackson, my childhood home. But Memphis was as far away as the north pole in my mind. The history that we were given about it was done in light pencil that hopscotched its way to a semi-solid landing with Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sun Records considered itself the fuse that lit the 1950s with Elvis and rock’n’roll. With Carla and Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding, Stax Records brought blues to the hit parade with hooks and horns and a solid beat, evolving into Al Green and Willie Mitchell. Memphis meant music.

And unless you stop to think for a minute, you might forget that it was in Memphis that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was shot and killed on a motel balcony on 4 April 1968. Stevie Wonder did not forget. In 1980, Stevie joined with the members of the Black Caucus in the US congress to speak out for the need to honour the day King was born, to make his birthday a national holiday.

The campaign began in earnest on Halloween of 1980 in Houston, Texas, with Stevie’s national tour supporting a new LP called Hotter than July, featuring the song Happy Birthday, which advocated a holiday for King. I arrived in Houston in the early afternoon to join the tour as the opening act. By 15 January 1981, King’s birthday, I had been working on the Hotter than July tour for 10 weeks.

What’s amazing about people who are supposed to “think of everything” is how many things have never crossed their minds. That was never more clear to me than when I saw how things looked from the back of the outdoor stage set up on the Washington DC monument grounds as Stevie’s rally for King got under way.

Click here to read more