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Wonder recorded this to lobby for Dr. Martin Luther King's January 15 birthday to be an American national holiday. King was a black American Civil Rights leader whose unique combination of the message of Jesus (love your enemies) and the method of Gandhi (non violent protest) gave both a strategy and a philosophy to the black civil rights movement. During the years he led the movement he won victory after victory without resorting to violence. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35, making him the youngest Nobel Prize recipient. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 by the white James Earl Ray when leaving his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee to attend a soul-food dinner at the home of the Reverend Samuel (Billy) Kyles on the Lorraine Motel balcony. The third Monday in January is now Martin Luther King day in USA - a public holiday.
Stevie Wonder had a huge role in getting Martin Luther King day recognized as a national holiday in America. He helped organize a rally in Washington on January 15, 1981 (King's birthday), that was a key event in the movement. With the crowd chanting, "Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday," black leaders and celebrities appeared, and when Wonder spoke, he said: "As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us. I'd like to ask all of you just for one moment, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr Martin Luther King."
A highlight of the rally was Wonder's performance of this song, and over the next few years, Wonder continued his work to raise awareness of the movement and apply political pressure to get the holiday recognized. Another rally followed the next year, and on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill. The holiday was first observed in 1986, but it took many more years before every state made it a full holiday complete with a paid day off for state workers. South Carolina was the last to do so, joining the other 49 states in 2000.
Stevie Wonder sang this to Rosa Parks on her 89th birthday when he attended the premiere of her made-for-TV movie Ride to Freedom: The Rosa Parks Story.