Ballad of Birmingham Characters

The main characters in “Ballad of Birmingham” are the daughter and the mother.

  • The daughter is a girl living in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 who is based on the four girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
  • The mother is firm yet affectionate, her chief aim being to protect her daughter from threats of violence.

Characters

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Last Updated on April 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

The Daughter

The daughter, who remains unnamed, is a young girl living in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. The note at the beginning of the poem suggests that the character is based on or inspired by the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in September of 1963. The four girls who were killed in the bombing ranged in age from eleven to fourteen, though the mother’s reference to her daughter as “a little child” suggests that she may be younger.

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The primary character traits of the daughter are her strong idealism and her respect for her mother. On the one hand, she feels passionate about joining the marches taking place in downtown Birmingham. She articulates the intention behind her desire, which is to “make our country free.” The poem’s historical context frames the daughter’s ideals as being in line with those of the civil rights movement. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, which was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States, became a locus for the civil rights movement. The daughter understands, at some level, that what is at stake is equality, and she is eager to join the fight for this goal.

On the other hand, the daughter also displays a deference to her mother. Although she expresses her desire to join in the march, she ultimately assents to her mothers wishes and concerns, agreeing to attend church instead.

The Mother

The mother is, like her daughter, unnamed, and there is no specific information revealed about her. Nonetheless, her core traits of protectiveness and devotion emerge quite clearly in the poem’s eight stanzas. The mother is initially presented in opposition to her daughter, denying her requests to join the march downtown. Her opposition rests solely on her concern for her daughter’s safety. Explaining her worries, she cites the brutal tactics police officers used to control civil rights marchers, including dogs, hoses, and weapons. 

But even as the mother turns down her daughter’s request, she does so in an affectionate manner, referring to her daughter as “baby” and openly discussing her concerns rather than brusquely refusing. The mother’s devoted and affectionate nature also emerges when she assists her daughter in preparing for church in the fifth stanza. These traits again come to the fore in the poem’s tragic concluding stanzas, in which the mother runs towards the church, fearing that her daughter has been hurt by the explosion. When her fears are confirmed, she expresses her sorrow and disbelief in the poem’s haunting final lines.

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