"The Ballad of Birmingham" is a poem describing the catastrophic bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
The poem begins as a dialogue between a mother and her child. The child addresses its mother, asking if he may go downtown and participate in a Freedom March in Birmingham.
The mother refuses, saying that the "dogs" are "fierce" and that the march will draw guns and hoses from police, with participants ending up in jail, something inappropriate for a child.
The child counters that he will not be alone, but that other children too will be marching to "make our country free."
However, the mother refuses, saying she is afraid the child will be shot. Instead, she tells him to go to church and sing in "the children's choir."
The poet describes how the mother has combed and washed her hair, bathed, and put on her white gloves and white shoes for church. She is pleased to know that her child is safe in the "sacred" place of the church—until the next moment, when she hears an explosion, which sends her running through the streets in search of her child.
Finding the church bombed, nothing but "bits of glass and brick," the mother is able to find only her child's shoe. Distressed, she lifts it out and cries, "baby, where are you?"
The poet does not go into any detail, but it is heavily implied that the child has been killed in the church bombing, a cruel irony, given that the mother had felt sure he would be safe there.