Martin Luther King Day celebrates the birthday, life, and achievements of the influential American civil rights leader. King successfully ran non-violent protests against the racial segregation in the United States in the 1950s and 60s and worked tirelessly to fight against racial discrimination.
Martin Luther King also had a strong connection with music. For West Berlin’s 14th annual cultural festival on 13 Sept, 1964, he was asked to write a foreword for the festival’s program, writing:
It is clear that King saw a connection between music and the expression of identity and social issues. Therefore it is unsurprising that he formed a relationship with Berry Gordy of Motown Records, both role models for young African Americans. Gordy said:
Two months before the March on Washington, Dr King stood before 25,000 people at Cobo Hall in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, to speak about making “the American Dream a reality”. King repeatedly exclaimed, “I have a dream this afternoon”; a preview of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial political rally in August 1963, to over 200,000 people. This iconic speech was preserved through a spoken-word LP released by Motown.
The Black Forum record label was set up by Gordy in 1970 and released records intended to speak out against the war in New York using compilations of speeches, poetry and oral history.
This record label gave a voice to leading black intellectuals and activists. The aim was to inform and educate the public about national concerns.
In the wake of King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King, Dr King’s widow, asked Berry Gordy and the artists of Motown to put on a benefit concert to launch the Poor People’s Campaign. Sammy Davis Jr, Nancy Wilson and Sidney Poitier marched alongside Mr Gordy in an effort to gain economic justice in the United States.
Motown also released socially conscious pop music; for example, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, shines light on justice issues such as inner-city poverty, racism, war, and environmental and drug abuse. Berry Gordy had some hesitations about the release of this album but Marvin’s impassioned desire “to waken the minds of mankind” moved him to agree and it turned into one of the biggest selling Motown albums of all time. The title song became a major influence on future artists wishing to highlight social concerns through music.
This relationship between music and social intervention paved the way for years to come. It was however a different kind of intervention from Motown artist Stevie Wonder that brought about the formal celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and there were quickly calls for a national holiday to be established to celebrate his life and work. Stevie Wonder released the famous record, Happy Birthday, to promote this campaign. The song became a hit, and in the early 1980s Wonder worked with Coretta Scott King to gain support for the national holiday. Happy Birthday was composed by Wonder to celebrate King’s life and he dedicated the song and his next album to the cause of creating Martin Luther King Day.
Wonder embarked on a 4 month tour finishing in Washington in early 1981. On January 16th, 100,000 people turned up for a Martin Luther King rally from all over the country. When Wonder approached the podium, the audience started chanting, “Happy Birthday!”
After various rallies and millions of signatures gathered by Wonder and his team, President Reagan signed the bill into law in 1983. Certain states refused to honour the holiday for years to come until in 2000, when South Carolina became the final state to recognise Martin Luther King Day, which falls this year on January 16th.
Motown is often celebrated for its fun, feel-good hits, but also has a firm place in the history books as a symbol of hope.