Today in the U.S. we celebrate a national holiday for our great hero of the civil rights movement and pacifism, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, like most holidays, only about a third of employers give their workers a day off, so (ironically considering Dr. King’s activism) the working poor get kinda screwed.
Still, I like that there’s a holiday, and in its honor I want to present to you a couple clips related to the holiday’s greatest contributions to pop culture.
First up is Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday,” from the album Hotter In July. In 1980, after the holiday was first proposed by labor unions and then debated by politicians, Stevie recorded this to popularize the movement. Since then he seems willing to use it as a generic birthday song, but originally it was a plea to create “a holiday where peace is celebrated all throughout the world.”
Here’s a nice live performance of it:
In the song Stevie is befuddled by “anyone who takes offense” at the holiday, but of course for years after President Reagan signed it into law (because “”Congress seemed bent on making it a national holiday”) some of the usual white assholes in power had the balls to push back against it. 2004 Republican Presidential candidate John McCain infamously voted against it, although he had reversed his position by the early ’90s, when Arizona was getting alot of shit on the national level for still not honoring the holiday. In 1990 it was actually put to a vote, and Arizonans rejected it by 76%! This was not that long ago. Even the NFL wondered what in fuck’s name was wrong with those people, and pulled the Super Bowl out of Arizona.
In 1991, armed only with a large clock and a badass sample from Mandrill’s “Two Sisters of Mystery,” Public Enemy launched a musical attack on Arizona. Even though it only played on MTV one time, the video (by HOUSE PARTY 3 director Eric Meza) created controversy not for being pro-MLK holiday but, more understandably, for blatantly going against Dr. King’s peaceful philosophy by depicting Chuck D assassinating the governor of Arizona.
In an interview with Spin a couple months ago Chuck had no regrets about the video: “Dr. King didn’t make the video. Dr. King died a violent death and I was answering that. As a child, I was pissed off that they killed Dr. King and I was answering that. Regardless of what Dr. King believed, the act of his life being taken was not a passive thing. So I don’t feel any contradiction to this moment. Look, I’m for peace, but I can make a visual statement about how I feel about what happened. The actuality is that I shot a video in rebuttal to something that happened in real life.”
Still, it was a good song and the video was an effective expression of anger and disgust:
Also controversial was “Return of the King,” the MLK Day episode of The Boondocks. This under-recognized gem of ballsy cultural satire imagines what would happen if Dr. King hadn’t died when he was shot, but just went into a coma, and woke up in the modern world. The resurrected Dr. King not only has to deal with being demonized on Fox News, but with seeing a future that doesn’t entirely resemble the one he famously dreamed about. Obviously Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder is making alot of criticisms of his own community, so it’s kind of iffy for me as a white person to agree with it, but I think this is a more on target attack on the type of degrading media images that Spike Lee went after in BAMBOOZLED. And it alternates between funny and sad, like in this scene where Dr. King gets his first taste of BET:
I’m gonna go slightly off the connected-to-the-holiday theme to end on a positive note and I can’t find a trailer for the cable movie BOYCOTT, where Jeffrey Wright played Dr. King. Instead I present to you Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” a great, soulful anthem written the year after the March on Washington. This NPR story explains some of the song’s connection to Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Here’s a white lady singing it:
Nah, just kidding. Nothing against Dusty. But here’s the version Curtis did with the Impressions:
There’s also a great Staples Singers version (did I hear a De La Soul sample in there?), and a Chambers Brothers one, and Alicia Keys sings it. And holy shit, I think I need to embed this Al Green version:
Anyway, I hope that you have enjoyed some of these selections, and if not I will turn the other cheek so you can slap that one too, as long as you are in the business of slapping me in the face for just sharing some nice stuff with you. Thanks alot.
Happy birthday everybody.