What is the purpose of the "Ballad of Birmingham"?

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In this poem, a little girl asks her mother if she can participate in a Freedom March in the city of Birmingham, but her mother tells her that it is too dangerous with the dogs and clubs and hoses and guns and jails. The child claims that she won't be alone because there will be lots of other children marching to "'make our country free.'" The mother, however, wants to ensure the safety of her precious child, and so she tells her daughter that she can go to church to sing with the choir instead. The daughter is lovingly prepared to go to church, and her mother feels secure that her little girl will be safe. However, and this is the horrible, gut-wrenching irony of the poem, the church is bombed and so the child her mother thought was safe is killed in the blast.

The irony, that the little girl would have been safer marching on the streets than she is in a "sacred place," is meant to shock us and compel us to empathize with the people represented. The feeling of loving one's children and wanting to protect them is a universal one, and by detailing a mother's feelings of certainty and then her horrific loss, the poem asks white readers to imagine being victimized and persecuted in such a way.

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In the "Ballad of Birmingham" Dudley Randall embraces the horror of the poem's setting.  Published and recorded in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Randall's poem is both moving and heart breaking, and so it's purpose is to stir the reader by evoking an emotional response from the reader.

In the poem, a young girl wants to go downtown where people are marching through the streets of Birmingham.  Her mother, fearing for her safety refuses to let her go.  Instead, the mother sends the girl to church believing that she will be safer there.  Sadly, when the mother reaches the church, she finds that the church has been bombed, and her daughter, who she only thought she was protecting, has died.  The poem's closing stanza is haunting as Randall reminds the reader that during this time of turmoil, no one is really safe.

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?"

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