‘Ballad of Birmingham’ was first published in 1965 as a broadside. This refers to a large sheet of paper that has text on only one side of it. They often announced news or events or in this case, contained a ballad that had some kind of social commentary. As the epigraph states, this poem was written in response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Black congregation was targeted by four Ku Klux Klan members. Four young girls were killed in the attack and twenty-two others were injured.
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Summary of Ballad of Birmingham
The poet takes the reader, stanza by stanza, through the events that led up to this little unnamed girl falling victim to the bombers of the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church. She asks her mom at the beginning of the poem if she can go into the city and march with the Freedom March. Her mother tells her no, suggesting instead that she go to the church and to the children’s choir. This is what she does and what ends up leading to her terrible death.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Ballad of Birmingham
In this poem, the poet engages with themes of equal rights, violence, and loss/sorrow. All of these are quite evident throughout the poem. He paints a clear image of this moment in the Civil Rights Movement and the terrible violence that has engraved it in the minds of all those who witnessed it or later learned about it. The mother’s sorrow comes through clearly and poignantly as she searches through the rubble for her child. This little girl was lost in a terrible act of violence, one of many, unfortunately, which marked this time in history.
Structure and Form of Ballad of Birmingham
‘Ballad of Birmingham’ by Dudley Randall is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a consistent rhyme scheme, that matches up with the standard ballad stanza form. The lines rhyme ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza.
In regards to the meter, Randall also sticks close to the traditional ballad or hymn stanza form. The odd-numbered lines, starting with line one of the first stanza, contain four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. This is known as iambic tetrameter. In the even-numbered lines, the stresses stay the same but there are only three sets of them. There are a few moments in the poem in which the stresses change. Sometimes one is taken away and sometimes an extra is added onto the end of the line.
Literary Devices in Ballad of Birmingham
Randall makes use of several literary devices in ‘Ballad for Birmingham’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesura, and allusion. The latter is one of the most important techniques in the poem. By connecting this poem directly to a real historical event, the poet is memorializing that event in a powerful way. Since the reader knows what ’s going to happen if the child goes to the “streets of Birmingham,” there is a great deal of foreshadowing and anticipation of the violent outcome.
Enjambment is an important formal device that is used to control the flow of the lines. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as that between lines three and four of the second stanza.
Caesura works in a similar way to alliteration except that it is concerned with how the lines are broken up with punctuation. For instance, line one of the fourth stanza reads: “No, baby, no, you may not go” or line three of the second stanza which reads: “And clubs and hoses, guns and jails”.
Analysis of Ballad of Birmingham
Stanzas One and Two
“Mother dear, may I go downtown
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
Aren’t good for a little child.”
In the first stanza of ‘Ballad of Birmingham,’ the speaker begins by relaying the imagined words of a child. This little girl is going to be one of the victims of the Birmingham church bombing but, of course, neither she nor her mother knows what’s to come. She asks her mom if she could go down to the “Freedom March” in Birmingham rather than out to play. This is a powerful opening line that asks today’s reader to consider how powerful this movement was, and still is, in that even young children knew how important marching for their rights was.
Int he second stanza the mother tells her daughter, no. There are no many dangers on the street for a young girl. The people marching are facing violent attacks at the hands of Bull Connor, the racist police commissioner of the city. He’s encouraging violence against those who are peacefully protesting.
The perfect rhymes in these lines are haunting. It’s very clear that something terrible is going to happen but the sing-song-like rhymes make the stanzas sound like a song. In fact, this poem was written with the intention of it becoming a song.
Stanzas Three and Four
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
To make our country free.”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
And sing in the children’s choir.”
The third stanza of ‘Ballad of Birmingham,’ contains the child’s response to her mother. She tells her mom that she isn’t going to be along there at the march. She’ll be surrounded by like-minded people who are all seeking to “make our country free”. These arguments don’t convince her mother who tells her that the “guns” might “fire” on the marchers. Instead, she should go to church, to the “children’s choir”. It is heartbreaking to consider this choice, one that should’ve protected her child and what it turned into.
A reader should take note of the use of perfect internal rhymes in the first line of this stanza. “No,” “no,” and “go,” although the subject matter is dark, by using these rhymes the poet is able to keep the song-like qualities of the text.
Stanza Five and Six
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
To come upon her face.
In the sixth stanza of ‘Ballad of Birmingham,’ the poet uses anaphora. This is seen through the repetition of the word “And” at the start of lines two through four. It is building up to the climax of the poem and the terrible events that played out at this church. The little girl is getting ready to go. The imagery in these lines is juxtaposed with the violence that the reader knows is coming. Words like “rose petal,” “sweet,” “white gloves,” “small black hands,” and “white shoes” all describe this little girl’s world. Her innocence (as symbolized through the color white) couldn’t be clearer.
Her mother is comforted by the fact that she knows her child is going to church and that nothing bad is going to happen to her in that sacred place. “But,” the speaker says, “that smile was the last smile”. This is a very clear use of foreshadowing that should fully prepare readers for what’s going to happen in the last stanzas.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
For when she heard the explosion,
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
But, baby, where are you?”
In the seventh and eighth stanzas, the speaker describes the mother’s frantic search for her child in the rubble of the church. The bomb goes off and she knows right away that something terrible has happened. She races through the streets calling for his little girl. The enjambment that’s used between the third and fourth lines of this stanza mirrors the mother’s rushed pace. She’s trying desperately to get to her child.
The poem concludes with the speaker describing how the mother found the church and then discovered one “shoe” her child was wearing. The last line, “But, baby, where are you?” is haunting and very memorable. There is no stated resolution to the narrative but with the historical context, it is very clear that Randall meant this woman’s child to be one of the four little girls who were killed in this bombing.
In addition to the history directly surrounding the events in this poem, it is also important to consider the larger historical context. This bombing, and the composition of this poem, occurred in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. During this period, Martin Luther King Jr. along with many other brave and heroic men and women were working to secure equal rights under the law for all people of color in America. Alabama was at the center of many of the protests and acts of violence.
In the same year that this attacked happened, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Birmingham Campaign alongside the Souther Christian Leadership Conference. The groups encouraged children to attend marches and protests and make it known to any watch that it was generations Black Americans who were standing up for their rights. The racist police commissioner, Bull Connor is remembered today for his cruel and violent treatment of these protesters. He encouraged police offers to assault protesters with their fists but also with fire hoses and dogs.
Randall’s ‘Ballad of Birmingham’ is a heartbreaking poem of one of the worst moments in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s in America. But, it is far from the only poem that focuses on this kind of subject matter. Readers should also seek out ‘I, Too , Sing America’ by Langston Hughes, ‘Rosa’ by Rita Dove, ’Power’ by Audre Lorde, and ‘Caged Bird’ by Maya Angelou.