February 03, 1986 12:00 PM

This is a people party,” said Stevie Wonder just before stepping onstage at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center to launch a nationwide televised gala to commemorate Martin Luther King’s birthday. “This is a celebration of a man who was black, who was American, but who had a message that was universal.” At the Kennedy Center, New York’s Radio City Music Hall and the Atlanta Civic Center, a host of entertainers—some witnesses to the civil rights era, others the inheritors of its legacy—gathered to sing, dance and proclaim King’s message of peace, freedom and justice for all.

The King-size birthday party was organized by Wonder, 35. He first put his talent behind the campaign to designate a national holiday honoring the late civil rights leader in 1978 when he wrote Happy Birthday. In 1984 Congress passed a bill declaring it a federal holiday, and a few months ago Wonder began recruiting performers for the complicated three-city celebration.

By last Monday the list of diverse and dispersed celebrities had grown to include just about everyone from Liz Taylor and Lionel Richie to Bill Cosby, Barbara Walters, Harry Belafonte, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Bob Dylan, Eddie Murphy, Neil Diamond, Al Jarreau, Bette Midler, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Diana Ross, Amy Grant and Peter, Paul and Mary. NBC technicians mixed live and taped performances from the three concerts to produce a two-hour special.

“The message is victory for all of those who lived and died in the civil rights struggle and who knew that love would prevail,” said Wonder. “But that doesn’t mean the work is over. There is still hunger in America, apartheid in South Africa and the threat of war and terrorism that we have to conquer.”

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