When Stevie Wonder sings, people listen.
So when he calls for a march on Washington to support making Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday, buses from across the country start rolling this way.
In fact, more than 280 of them from 30 cities nationwide -- including 40 from Chicago (that's a 14-hour ride) -- were en route to the nation's capital late yesterday for the kind of civil rights-era demonstration that some say only Wonder, the charismatic rhtym-and-blues singer, could pull off.
"I think Stevie's calling for this march must have been an act of providence," said Ofield Dukes, the public relations man whom Wonder asked to organize the march. "In spite of the cold weather, the enthusiasm has not been dampened. If other people had called, there would not be a march."
The march begins at 10 a.m. Thursday, the birthday of the slain civil rights leader, from the steps of the Capitol. It will proceed down Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue and 15 Street NW to the Washington Monument grounds. A two-hour program featuring Wonder is scheduled to follow.
Several political figures will also participate, including D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). At about the same time, Coretta Scott King will be leading the annual silent march to the gravesite of her late husband in Atlanta.
According to Dukes, Wonder plans to cover the cost of the Washington march with a benefit concert at the Capital Centre on Friday.
Plans for the march began last November following a meeting between Wonder and Coretta King. As a poet, composer and philosopher, Wonder had "strong feelings" about the works of Martin Luther King, Dukes said.
Wonder's latest record album, "Hotter Than July," contains a tribute to King entitled, "Happy Birthday." In the song, the blind performer expresses disappointment with the failure of the government to make King's birthday a national holiday. The lyrics are simple, the music upbeat: "Why has there never been a holiday/ That peace is celebrated/ All throughout the world?"
Blind from birth and originally named Steveland Morris, Wonder introduced himself to music, picking up blues techniques from such artists as Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson and B. B. King. He was renamed Little Stevie Wonder and hit the charts in 1963 -- at age 12 -- with "Fingertips," followed by "Uptight (Everything's All Right)."
Since then, he has become one of the most successful pop artists in America and a respected interpreter of his generation's feelings.
Last January, Wonder led a march through Anacostia in Southeast Washington to commemorate King's birthday. Hundreds of schoolchildren mobbed his car, yelling with outstretched arms, "Stevie, Stevie, Stevie."
This year, Wonder is scheduled to make a guest appearance at the Anacostia King Day march -- an annual affair -- before heading for the Capitol. Other memorial services, ranging from radio talk shows to church services, are also planned for the day.
Meanwhile, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) is expected to introduce legislation in the Senate on Thursday to make King's birthday a national holiday. Last week, Conyers introduced a similar bill in the House. Similar measures have failed in the past, but supporters are nevertheless optimistic this year.
"I may be a cockeyed optimist, but I feel pretty confident that this time it will pass," said Ray Crittenden, an aide to Conyers. "We believe that the Reagan administration would like to have credibility with minorities, and we can't think of a better way for them to get with something that everybody can rally around."
D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D), newly elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said of King, "He shall go down in history as the prophet of our age because he had a way of translating his impossible dreams into living realitites."