Ballad of Birmingham Summary

Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall is a poem about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963.

  • The poem begins with an exchange between a daughter and mother. The daughter wants to go to downtown Birmingham to attend a march, but her mother prohibits her from going.
  • The mother sends the daughter to church instead and feels secure in the knowledge that her daughter will be out of harm’s way.
  • In the poem’s last two stanzas, the mother hears an explosion, runs to the church, and finds her daughter’s shoe amid the wreckage.

Summary

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Last Updated on April 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

Introduction

Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” was first published in broadside format and was subsequently collected in Randall’s 1968 volume, Cities Burning , which centers around the theme of social and political tumult. True to that theme, “Ballad of Birmingham” is about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham,...

(The entire section contains 606 words.)

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Introduction

Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” was first published in broadside format and was subsequently collected in Randall’s 1968 volume, Cities Burning, which centers around the theme of social and political tumult. True to that theme, “Ballad of Birmingham” is about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. In eight ballad stanzas, the poem imagines an interaction between one of the victims and her mother on the day of the tragedy.

Summary

“Ballad of Birmingham” contains a note above the first stanza. The note clarifies that the poem’s subject is “the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.” This is a reference to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which occurred in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. The purpose of this note is to establish the historical context and to suggest that the girl in the poem is based on the four girls who were killed in the bombing: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

The poem begins in the voice of an unnamed young girl who is in conversation with her mother. The daughter asks her “Mother dear” for permission to go to downtown Birmingham instead of playing with her friends. The reason for her request is her desire to attend a “Freedom March,” seemingly a reference to the large-scale civil rights marches in Birmingham organized in May of 1963 by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In the second stanza, the girl’s mother responds to her request. She firmly but affectionately denies her daughter’s wishes, saying “No, baby, no,” citing the potential dangers her daughter might face: aggressive dogs, clubs, hoses, guns, and the threat of jail. This list refers to the tactics police would use against civil rights protesters in Birmingham and other cities.

In the third stanza, the daughter replies, countering that she would be accompanied by other children in a collective march intended to “make our country free.” In the fourth stanza, the mother reiterates her reply of “No, baby, no” and again voices her concern about the dangers her daughter might face, worrying that “those guns will fire.” She presents an alternative, recommending that her daughter go to church and sing in the children’s choir instead.

The fifth stanza marks a transition away from the dialogue between the daughter and mother to a third-person account. The mother carefully helps her daughter get ready for church, brushing her “night-dark hair,” bathing “rose petal sweet,” and dressing her in white gloves and white shoes. The sixth stanza jumps ahead to when the daughter is in church, at which point the mother smiles, assured her daughter is in “the sacred place.” The stanza ends with a moment of distinct foreshadowing, noting that this smile would be the mother’s last smile.

The tension produced by this foreshadowing quickly rises to a dramatic turning point when the mother hears an explosion. She immediately begins to cry in anguish, her eyes “wet and wild.” Fearing the worst, she rushes across Birmingham towards the church, calling out her daughter’s name as she goes.

The eighth and final stanza picks up after another short narrative gap. As the mother “claws through bits of glass and brick,” it becomes clear that she has arrived at the church and that, just as she has feared, the church was the target of the explosion. Out of the pile of rubble, the mother finds and picks up a shoe. In the final two lines, the poem returns again to the mother’s voice as she cries out, identifying the shoe as her daughter’s and asking, “But, baby, where are you?”

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