TV One shines a light on Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron’s work to rally support to establish a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. in the two-hour, two-part special Unsung Presents: Music & The Movement airing tonight, Monday, January 18, 2021 at 8 p.m. ET/7C.
In the documentary that provides a timeline denoting how music from Black artists served as the soundtrack to the Black experience in America, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton describes the impact of Wonder’s 1980 MLK tribute “Happy Birthday,” tour featuring Scott-Heron, and historic rally at the Washington DC monument in 1981.
Sharpton recalls former President Ronald Regan initially opposing creating a holiday in honor of King and Wonder and Scott-Heron helping to bring more attention to the cause. “The president at that time was saying, ‘That’s absurd we’re not going to do that,’” Sharpton says in the television special. “In fact, Ronald Regan had called Dr. King at some time a communist at some point in his life. As those of us in the King movement started to petition, Mrs. King was out front. All of a sudden there was a rhythm set to that movement, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, and the movement blew up, and it became a cultural phenomenon to accompany the political aspirations.”
In November 1983, three years after the release of Wonder’s King tribute, President Regan signed a bill to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day an American federal holiday.
King received the support of numerous Black musicians, including Aretha Franklin, says Unsung Presents: Music & The Movement Co-Executive Producer P. Frank Williams. “People think of her as the greatest singer ever, but Aretha’s a very political woman,” Williams says. “And she actually funded part of Martin Luther Kings’ marches. She was always a part of it.” Williams, an Emmy and 8-time NAACP Image Award winning producer, has also produced shows like American Gangster on BET and Who Killed Tupac on A&E. He is the former Executive Editor of The Source Magazine. His company, Prophet From It Entertainment, recently produced an upcoming Black History Month social justice series and a hip-hop game show for Viacom.