For Educators: Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

Activity 4: An Anthem for the Movement: Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder

Brief Introduction: Stevie Wonder

Singer Stevie Wonder joined forces with Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, and John Conyers, U.S. House of Representatives (D-MI) to increase grassroots support.  Mr. Wonder attended the January 15, 1981 rally at the Washington Monument to support the King Holiday movement.   At the rally, Stevie Wonder gave a speech advocating for a Dr. King national holiday and introduced a birthday song for him that increased national awareness. 100,000 people joined Stevie Wonder as well as celebrities like Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Jesse Jackson, and Gil Scott-Heron at the rally. The day was cold and snowy.  Mr. Wonder thanked the crowd for attending. He said, “For even though it is freezing cold and snowing…you have found the time, the energy, the necessary resources, the heart and the courage to step forward as Americans and as human beings on this day to seek a more full recognition for a great man and the great principles he has lived, fought, and died for.”   With financial support from Stevie Wonder, a lobbying office was opened in Washington, D.C. and eventually this effort secured millions of signatures on petitions to Congress in support of a national holiday to honor Dr. King’s contributions.

Documents Needed:

Worksheet 4: Stevie Wonder's Speech
Worksheet 5: Lyrics to the Song – Happy Birthday

Materials Needed:

•Computer with Internet access



Share with your students a copy of Stevie Wonder’s speech advocating a national Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Mr. Wonder delivered the speech January 15, 1981 at a march in Washington, D.C.  Allow the students 10 minutes to read the speech

Document Analysis and Group Discussion

Using Worksheet 4: Stevie Wonder's Speech, have the students gather information from this document by answering the following questions:

•Why was it important to gather in Washington, D.C.?
•What were the messages or principles that Dr. King spoke about and that are still vital today?
•What did Mr. Wonder say to those who believed that national holidays are to only honor presidents and great events?
•List 5 reasons why Mr. Wonder advocated for a national holiday for Dr. King.
•What did Mr. Wonder encourage the people who attended the rally to do?


Have the students share what they learned about Mr. Wonder’s participation in the movement and how critical it was to the success of gaining a national holiday honoring Dr. King’s life and legacy.

Reading and Analyzing Song Lyrics

Following the class discussion about Mr. Wonder's speech, share with the students a copy of the lyrics to his song, "Happy Birthday." Ask the students:

•Do they know what an anthem is and its purpose?
•How many of them have heard the song before seeing Stevie Wonder’s performance of it on the video?
•How many of them knew that the song became the anthem for the movement?

Using Worksheet 5: Lyrics to the Song – Happy Birthday, have the students read the lyrics to the song and compare it to Mr. Wonder's speech.

•How does the song reflect what he spoke about in his speech?
•Why do you think it quickly became an anthem for the movement?
•Do you think this song is as important today as it was in 1981?
•What songs today celebrate and honor African American heritage?
•If you were to write a song today to honor Dr. King what would you say?

Following the analysis of the lyrics, play the song for the students using the following links:



Internet Research for Music Composition/Spoken Word

Engage the students in additional research of the Avoice online exhibit, Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Bill.  Tell the students to consider how to use the information they discover on the site to write a song or poem honoring Dr. King. You may divide the students into small groups for this activity.

Optional Activity: Collaboration with the English and Music Departments of your school.

You may consider collaborating with the English and music department teachers in implementing this writing and music composing activity. As a conclusion to this activity encourage the students to present their poetry or song to the rest of the school in a special program to honor the legacy of Dr. King.

Extended Activity

Consider screening this recommended documentary:  Martin Luther King: The Making of a Holiday.

additional information and links.