The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

September 15, 1963, was not a typical Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama; it was a day of devastation. Sunday school had just ended at the Seventeenth Street Baptist Church when nineteen sticks of dynamite, stashed under a stairwell, exploded. Twenty-two of the black congregation’s adults and children, although injured, survived the bombing. Four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, did not. The bombing was a horrific reminder of the dangers of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s as well as of the even greater danger and murderous power of unchecked racism. Americans were shocked as they watched televised accounts of the explosion. It was unfathomable that four little girls would be murdered in church.

Dudley Randall’s poem about the event, “Ballad of Birmingham,” was set to music and recorded prior to its 1965 publication as a broadside. The poem of thirty-two lines is divided into eight four-line stanzas; in each stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme. In the first stanza, Randall begins a dialogue between a daughter and her mother and presents the child’s unusual request to forsake play in order to participate in one of the civil rights demonstrations that were prevalent in the South during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the second stanza, the mother denies her daughter’s request because she fears for her daughter’s safety amid the clubs, police dogs, firehoses, and guns; she also...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Typical of a ballad, Randall’s poem presents a brief narrative that includes a dramatic event—the bombing of the church and the loss of lives. Imagery is an important device in “Ballad of Birmingham.” Imagery is the use of a word or a group of words to elicit various sensory experiences. From the first to the last stanzas, readers of “Ballad of Birmingham” encounter multiple images that are primarily visual and associated with the dialogue, the girl’s preparation for church, and the explosion. Randall invites readers to visualize and hear a mother-daughter conversation in stanzas 1 through 4. Their dialogue evokes visual images of the many civil rights demonstrators marching through the streets of Birmingham and elsewhere. In stanza 2 are the dogs, clubs, firehoses, guns, and jails used to control the primarily black protesters; in stanza 3 are children marching the Birmingham streets; in stanza 4 are “guns [that] will fire.” The mother sends the child to church “to sing in the children’s choir,” and auditory images of young voices singing are called forth.

The next group of images is centered on the little girl’s preparations for church in stanza 5; readers see her combing and brushing “her nightdark hair,” bathing “rose petal sweet” (which also evokes a fragrant image), and putting “white gloves on her small brown hands” and “white shoes on her feet.” The last group of images focuses on the explosion in stanza 7. Readers visualize and hear the explosion, see the mother’s wet, wild eyes, see her frantically racing through the streets of Birmingham, and hear her calling for her daughter in vain. Then, in stanza 8, readers visualize the mother clawing through “bits of glass and brick” and ultimately lifting her daughter’s shoe from the bombing debris.

A second major device is irony. The central irony in the poem involves the fact that the mother, in trying to keep her daughter safe, wishes her to go to church rather than to a demonstration, and the girl is killed in church. Subsumed within this irony are lesser ironies: The daughter’s preparations for church become her preparations for death; knowing that her child is “safe” in church causes the mother to smile before the explosion occurs; a church is expected to be a sanctuary, not a place of death.