Cora Masters Barry, former first lady of the District of Columbia, is advocating for Stevie Wonder's Martin Luther King Jr.-dedicated "Happy Birthday" song to reflect its true meaning. (Courtesy photos)
Cora Masters Barry, former first lady of the District of Columbia, is advocating for Stevie Wonder's Martin Luther King Jr.-dedicated "Happy Birthday" song to reflect its true meaning. (Courtesy photos)

A former first lady of the District says the song encouraging the nation to embrace a federal holiday for slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should be put into better context as to its true meaning.

Cora Masters Barry, the wife of the late District mayor and council member Marion S. Barry Jr., said the song written and sung by Stevie Wonder — “Happy Birthday” — has lost the original purpose of its being and people should be educated about what it meant. 

“I am passionate about Black history,” said Barry, 76, “People, especially young people, should know where the song came from. They need to know the struggle of making King’s birthday a holiday.”

King was born on Jan. 15, 1929.

After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) filed a bill in the House calling for a federal holiday in his honor. 

Many Black leaders on the local, state and federal levels embraced Conyers’ bill throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, with some helping to enact holidays in their own cities, counties and states. In the District, Washington Informer Publisher Calvin Rolark and his wife, D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) along with media personality Petey Green, organized the nation’s first King Day parade in 1979. 

President Reagan signed the King Holiday bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983, and its first public celebration occurred on Jan. 20, 1986.

Wonder released the song to the public on June 26, 1981. The song’s lyrics touched the hearts of people who wanted the King federal holiday, Barry said.

“If you listen to some of the lyrics, you can hear what Stevie was saying in the song,” she said. “You can hear his advocacy and support for the King holiday. He sang, ‘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.’ The song was recognizing the travesty that King’s birthday wasn’t a holiday.”

Barry said it saddens her that the song has been morphed into a general birthday tune. People sing Wonder’s song to praise someone during their birthday but don’t want to sing the traditional “Happy Birthday” tune that tends to be rote and unexciting, she explained. 

The former first lady said that the older generation of African Americans have failed to educate young people about the real purpose of the song.

“That is a failure on our part,” she said. “I don’t think it was intentional. But I say let’s fix this up.”

Barry said others agree with her on the misinterpretation of the song. She also said Wonder should receive more credit than he presently gets for his role in rallying support for the King holiday.

“Stevie Wonder played a huge part in this effort,” Barry said. “It should be remembered that there was strong opposition to the King holiday. We had to really work to see it through.”

Barry said she is pleased that Stuart Anderson, the co-chair of the District’s Martin Luther King Jr. Parade Committee, has agreed to have the song played during the procession that will take place on Jan. 16.

“Stevie’s song reminds us that the King holiday is a day of service and a day of prayer,” she said.

James Wright Jr.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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