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How 'Dancing in the Street' became an accidental civil rights anthem

Amanda Parris
Listen to Marvin's Room, Feb 2nd 2018

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio


It’s considered one of the signature songs of Motown and has been used in movies, TV shows and countless commercials. But even though most of us know the song “Dancing in the Street," few may recall that when it was released by Martha and the Vandellas, it became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

"Dancing in the Street" was written by William (Mickey) Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter and the legendary Marvin Gaye. Legend has it that Stevenson and Gaye were driving through the streets of Detroit and saw children of different races playing and dancing in the water of an open-fire hydrant. That image of innocent and effortless integration inspired the two men to create the song.

Initially written by Hunter as a melancholy song, Gaye pushed him to give it more life and more energy so that people would truly be inspired to dance in the street. Listeners were definitely inspired, but not in the way Martha Reeves or the original writers intended.

"Dancing in the Street" was released in the year of Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi. In the summer of 1964, more than 1,000 people were arrested, more than three dozen Black churches were bombed or burned and at least three civil rights workers were killed. It was the summer that Malcolm X declared, "We want freedom by any means necessary," and riots began in New Jersey, Chicago and Jacksonville.

Reeves always stated that “Dancing in the Street” was a party song but when it came out, young people were protesting and many heard “Dancing in the Street” as a call to action. Lines such as "Calling out around the world" and "Summer's here and the time is right" were interpreted as rallying cries, and "Dancing in the Street" meant it was time to mobilize.

For better or worse, the song became the anthem for demonstrations and riots across the country.

Marvin's Room playlist for Feb. 2, 2018

  1. Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street”
  2. Four Tops, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”
  3. Beatchild, the Slakadeliqs feat. Justin Nozuka, “The Only Difference”
  4. Yellow Days, “Gap in the Clouds”
  5. Bobby Caldwell, "Open Your Eyes"
  6. Kali Uchis feat. Tyler the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”
  7. 11:11, “Pretty Brown Eyes”
  8. Mint Condition, “What Kind of Man Would I Be”
  9. Sylo Nozra feat. Yumi, “Felt You”
  10. Monica, “Before You Walk out my Life”
  11. Staasia Daniel, “Crew Watch”
  12. Asheley Turner, “Outside”