35th Anniversary of Stevie Wonder's 1981 D.C. Rally for King Holiday

January 15, 2016 marks 35th anniversary of King Holiday rally in D.C.

Stevie Wonder was 17 years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. When United States Congressman John Conyers from Wonder's home state of Michigan introduced legislation to make King's January 15 birthday a federal holiday, Wonder joined King's widow, Coretta Scott King, in leading the support of the bill. Wonder recorded the theme song of the movement, "Happy Birthday (to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)", and spearheaded a rally for the holiday attended by over 100,000 people on January 15, 1981 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where King delivered his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech  in 1963.  

Many Southern politicians vigorously opposed the holiday, however after 15 years, Congress finally approved the bill. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation, making the third Monday in January "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day," beginning in 1986. 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the official national holiday.

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April 4, 1968 - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee

Stevie Wonder performing "Happy Birthday" to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on February 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Kevin Winter/WireImage

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old. His death became the inspiration for Stevie Wonder to pay tribute to his legacy. Several stars, including Wonder, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Mahalia Jackson attended King's funeral on April 9, 1968 at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Rev. Ralph Abernathy delivered a sermon, calling the event "one of the darkest hours of mankind." Per King's request, Jackson sang his favorite hymn, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." .

Following the private service, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference Executive Director Andrew Young, led a three mile procession to King's alma mater, Morehouse College, where a public service was held.

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1968 - Congressman John Conyers introduces King Holiday legislation

Michigan Congressman and Stevie Wonder. Louis Myrie/WireImage

Four days after Dr. King's death, United States Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, introduced legislation to make King's birthday, January 15, a federal holiday. Stevie Wonder, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, became the most vocal promoter of the bill. Opposition was strong, yet Conyers continually re-introduced the bill to Congress. In 1970, New York City and New York state observed King's birthday, followed by St. Louis in 1971. Finally, after 15 years, in 1983, the House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 338 for and 90 against. The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 78 for and 22 against.

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July 1979 - Stevie Wonder performs at King Holiday rally in Atlanta, Georgia

Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder. Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

In July 1979, Stevie Wonder performed at a rally for the King holiday in Atlanta, Georgia. He told Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, that he had a dream that the holiday would become a reality. Four years later, Wonder and Mrs. King presented a petition to House of Representative Speaker Tip O’Neill with six million signatures backing a King holiday.

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1981 - Stevie Wonder releases Martin Luther King "Happy Birthday" song

"Happy Birthday Matin Luther King" by Stevie Wonder. Motown Records

Stevie Wonder recorded "Happy Birthday" for his 1980 Hotter Than July album as the theme song for the campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on January 15 a national holiday.

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1980 - Michael Jackson performs with Stevie Wonder on "King Holiday" tour

Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

In 1980, Stevie Wonder performed a "King Holiday" national concert  tour to attract support for the holiday campaign. Bob Marley was originally scheduled to join him on the tour, however illness caused him to cancel, and he was replaced by Gil-Scott Heron. Michael Jackson was a surprise performer at the concert in New York City's Madison Square Garden.

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January 15, 1981 - Over 100,000 attend King Holiday Rally in D.C.

Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott Heron, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Gladys Knight at a press conference for the King Holiday rally on January 15, 1981 in Washington, D.C. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Over 100,000 people attended the King Holiday rally led by Stevie Wonder, on January 15, 1981 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was the site of Dr. King's historic "I Have A Dream" speech on August 28, 1963.

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November 2, 1983 - President Reagan signs King Holiday bill

President Ronald Reagan signs the Martin Luthor King, Jr. Day Declaration making it a holiday as Loretta Scott King and her son Dexter King watch November 3, 1983 in Washington, DC. Diana Walker/Liaison

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s' birthday. He  said, "Now our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We've made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all."

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January 20, 1986 - King Holiday first observed

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr during the March on Washington after delivering his 'I Have a Dream' speech, August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On January 20, 1986, the King Holiday was first officially observed. A bust of Dr, King was dedicated at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. At the time, only 27 states and the District of Columbia took part in the federal observance. It wasn’t until 14 years later that each of the 50 states officially recognized the day. Arizona consistently refused to honor the holiday, and in a state wide referendum, voted against the celebration.

In protest, many entertainers boycotted the state. Public Enemy recorded the song “By the Time I Get to Arizona” about the state's opposition. Tempe, Arizona had been selected to host the 1993 Super Bowl, however due to the King holiday controversy, in 1991, the National Football league punished the state and voted to move the game to Pasadena, California. This decision promoted a change in voting, and in 1992, the state of Arizona approved the holiday.

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September 18, 2007 - Dream Concert for Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Cuba Gooding Jr., Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and LL Cool J attend The Dream Concert to Benefit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on September 18, 2007 in New York City. Johnny Nunez/WireImage

On September 18, 2007, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, LL Cool J and other stars participated in The Dream Concert to Benefit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

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October 16, 2011 - Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Dedication in D.C.

James Taylor, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder perform during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Dedication on October 16, 2011 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi/WireImage for Tommy Hilfiger

On October 16, 2011, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow and Ledisi performed at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Dedication in Washington, D.C.

Watch Now: Profile of Martin Luther King, Jr.