Ballad of Birmingham

By Dudley Randall (b.1914)

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(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
“Mother dear, may I go downtownInstead of out to play,And march the streets of BirminghamIn a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,For the dogs are fierce and wild,And clubs and hoses, guns and jailsAren’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.Other children will go with me,And march the streets of BirminghamTo make our country free.”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,For I fear those guns will fire.But you may go to church insteadAnd sing in the children’s choir.”
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,And bathed rose petal sweet,And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her childWas in the sacred place,But that smile was the last smileTo come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,Her eyes grew wet and wild.She raced through the streets of BirminghamCalling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,Then lifted out a shoe.“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,But, baby, where are you?”

Dudley Randall:

Randall was born on January 14, 1914 in Detroit, MI and died on August 5, 2000. He is generally known to have written simple and realistic styled poems. In 1962, he took interest in the Boone House, which was a black cultural center. It was there that he and Margaret Danner, founder of Boone House, wrote poetry and read their works to their fellow African American audience. The first volume of their collection called Poem Counterpoem included "Battle of Birmingham", after Randall became passionate about the horrible church bombing tragedy in Alabama*.

Background of the Poem:

This poem was written by Randall and based off of the 1960s Civil Rights movement in the southern United States. Because the city of Birmingham is in the title, readers know the poem's plot takes place in Alabama, a state where this movement was especially strong. *The poem is specifically written about the true historical event of the 1963 bombing of Martin Luther King Jr.'s church by white hate criminals, which killed four girls. This poem was Randall's creative commentary on the intense prejudice, and "Ballad of Birmingham" illustrates the life and death of one young girl involved in this tragedy. He wrote it for political purposes, to uncover the true damage of racial hate crimes and hopefully gain justice for African Americans.

ballad.jpg (57655 bytes)
ballad.jpg (57655 bytes)

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Poem's Essential Elements:

T(heme)- Parents do not always have total control to protect their children; tragedy can inevitably strike at any time, even when one feels that are being optimally cautious [irony in this poem]. Prejudice and ignorant hate for any group of people can lead to the horrific deaths of those completely innocent.

I(magery)- "She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair, and bathed rose petal sweet, and drawn white gloves on her small brown hands, and white shoes on her feet" [lines 17-20] The vision of rose petals, the use of the color white, and the portrayal about her "small brown hands" clearly paint the image of pure innocence in this young girl, and the unjust prejudice against her although she is just a child. Figurative Language: "For the dogs are fierce and wild" [line 6] this can be interpreted as a metaphor for the white racists in the Birmingham streets.

M(eter)- 8 Stanzas, 4 lines per stanza. Couplet- The second and fourth line of each stanza rhyme, accenting the last word of each of those lines. Readers can hear the subconscious voice inside their head "lifting" as they read, emphasizing the meaning of those words:

"Mother, dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"

Also, the first four stanzas are organized into quotations, illustrating the initial conversation between the mother and daughter in the safety of their home. When the is changes to narration in stanza 5, the irony begins to form as the unfortunate outcome of the story is unfolded. Readers get the personal emotion immediately through the dialogue and then when the tragedy hits it is even more effective because it reader seems as if they are experiencing what the mother is feeling. Adding even more impact is the final two lines, when it switches back to quotations, and we again experience the mother's direct thoughts: "O, here's the shoe my baby wore, but, baby, where are you?" [lines 31-32] This is a strong ending to an emotion-filled poem, and the use of quotations is an essential tool to conveying the message.

E(motion)- "For I fear those guns will fire" [line 14] "But, mother, I won't be alone. Other children will go with me.... to make our country free" [lines 9-12] Even this very young, innocent girl knows the severity of the racial discrimination and wants to make her own mark by protesting, although it is too dangerous for her. This shows her passion for a cause. "Her eyes grew wet and wild" [line 26] "She clawed through bits of glass and brick, then lifted out a shoe" [lines 29-30] This conveys the intense desperation the mother felt while searching to see if her own daughter had fallen victim to this racial hate crime. The reader can picture this reaction in their own mind.


The main interpretation of this poem is that it is especially meant to paint the picture of a mother and daughter involved in the church bombing. The poem's goal is to show the personal side of the tragedy-- not just that a girl died because of a hate crime, but delving deeper into the background of her very real family life just moments before the inevitable. Readers know immediately from the first stanza that a tragedy will occur, because the girl asks her mother if she can participate in the Freedom March. Even this young, innocent girl knows the meaning of marching for the equality of her people, and wants to make a change. Her mother understands the danger, and wants to prevent her from being hurt by the intensity of the protest. She instead sends her to the church to be safe. Little does she know, this place of worship that is normally known as a safe haven, was the targeted place of the bombing. Those reading the poem understand the irony that the mother was simply trying to protect her daughter, but actually unknowingly sent her to her place of death. This interpretation makes the poem especially personal and heart-wrenching to readers, because of the delicate family relationships that are illustrated by Randall.

AP Questions: *Handout*


Jerry Moore put the poem to music, here is one version:

Works Cited:

"On "Ballad of Birmingham"" On "Ballad of Birmingham" N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

"Essay | The Ballad of Birmingham, A Theme Analysis." BookRags. BookRags, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

"Dudley Randall's Ballad of Birmingham Analysis." SchoolWorkHelper. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

"Biography of Dudley Randall." Poem Hunter. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.