Discuss the meaning of the poem "The Ballad of Birmingham" by Dudley Randall.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In 1963, the headlines across the nation  stated that six were dead in a bombing in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama.  The bomb had been thrown from a car.  It killed four little girls in their Sunday School class. The poem  “The Ballad Birmingham” by Dudley Randall was written after the bombing. 

Filled with irony, the poem has an omniscient third person point of view.  The speaker observes the dialogue between the little girl and her mother.  The poem is written in eight quatrains.  The third and fifth lines of each stanza rhyme

In this era,  the Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  Martin Luther King was holding rallies in Birmingham and other large cities in the south. 

The poem begins with a dialogue between a mother and herdaughter.  The little girl wants to go the freedom rally in downtown Birmingham.  This little girl would rather go on the march than go out and play.  This would not have been unusual in the south at this time.  The fight for equality was on the mind of every black person. 

The mother does not allow her little girl to go to the rally.  She fears the police dogs, clubs, water hoses, and the guns that had been used in other freedom rallies. All of these things were shown on television at other rallies where people were hurt.  The mother tells her child that these things were not good for a child.

In answer to her mother, the girl says that she will not be alone because other children will be there with her.  These children will march the streets of Birmingham to enhance the fight for freedom for everyone.

Once again, the mother refuses to allow her daughter to go.  She tells her daughter that as her mother she fears the guns.  Instead of going to the rally, the mother tells her  to go to church and sing in the children’s choir.

The little girl prepares for church.  She brushes her hair, bathes, put son perfume.  Then, she dresses in her Sunday best including gloves and white shoes.  The symbolism is clear. The white gloves and shoes are representative of innocence and purity.  Her mother thought she was dressing her daughter for church. Sadly, her Sunday best was for her funeral.

The mother felt that it was safe to go to church.  She smiles because her child would be in a sacred place.  However, this was the mother’s last smile.

It would make sense to any parent.  Send the little girl to church because there she can pray for freedom.  In the church, she will not be exposed to violence.  The irony is clear.

After her child had gone to church, the   mother heard a loud explosion.  For some reason, she looked afraid and wild eyed.  She ran to the church calling for her daughter.

For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.

When she arrived at the  church,  she saw the demolished church.  The mother began to dig through the rubble looking for her daughter.  She found the shoe of her daughter and knew that the little girl that should be safe at this sacred place had been killed in her Sunday School class.

Obviously, no one was safe anywhere.  When the church is bombed and religious people are killed in their place of prayer, the irony is plain.  The mother thought her little girl would be safe at church than at the freedom rally.  The bombers proved her wrong.


rexnmickey | Student

The purpose of the author writing this poem was to magnify the horror of a political era and to also bring to the fore front that not only this mother but all mothers must accept the reality and cope with the loss of a child during these types of horrific times. Also, to speak to the fact that no matter how we try to protect those we love, the world is in essences evil and cruel and will reach out with those fingers and destroy the very essence of lives. The author's message is that we can only keep looking for an end to the senseless killings due to differences of any kind which was alluded to at the end of the poem when the mother found her baby's shoe and asked the question "But baby where are you?"