Ballad of Birmingham

by Dudley Randall

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Last Updated on April 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 829

Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” takes the form of a classic ballad, as its title suggests. The poem is composed of eight quatrains, or four-line stanzas, each of which consists of lines that alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter in an ABCB rhyme scheme. The ballad is ideally suited for narrative-centered poems like Randall’s; the short lines and lively rhythms of the form propel the reader onward to each successive stanza and each subsequent event. Randall also makes appropriate use of the ballad form in that it lends the poem the tone and prosody of a nursery rhyme. This contributes to the tension between the gravity of the topic at hand—the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church—and the innocent perspective of the character of the daughter, who is indeed “a little child.” In this sense, the ballad form makes vivid the pathos of the daughter’s accidental involvement in the bombing.

The poem can be seen as consisting of two primary sections. The first half, consisting of the first four quatrains, stages a dialogue between the daughter and the mother, with each stanza presenting a neatly contained line of speech. This structure conveys the opposing views of the two characters—the daughter who wishes to march downtown and the mother who denies that wish out of concern—and establishes the dramatic situation of the poem. 

After the fourth stanza, there is a turn, and the poem’s second half, consisting of the final four quatrains, switches to an external view of the events that then unfold. These stanza offer a series of snapshots from throughout the rest of the day: the mother’s dressing of her daughter, the mother’s serene smile as she thinks of her daughter at church, the mother’s alarm when she hears the explosion, and finally the mother’s tearful surveying of the wreckage. The pathos of the final stanza is emphasized in the last two lines by the return from the external perspective to the mother’s voice as she laments the loss of her daughter.

The diction throughout the poem, in both the dialogue and the third-person narration, is polished yet plain, generally avoiding turns of phrase that are overly poetic. At times, the diction is somewhat casual, such as in terms of endearment like “baby” and contractions like “don’t,” allowing the poem to realistically portray the speech shared between the daughter and mother. Still, the diction is never predominantly colloquial.

One of the key techniques Randall uses in “Ballad of Birmingham” is irony. Randall employs two forms of irony: situational and dramatic. The poem’s situational irony lies in the mother’s expectation that her daughter will be safe by going to church, thereby avoiding the dangers associated with joining the “Freedom March” in downtown Birmingham. Tragically, the mother’s efforts to protect her daughter are nullified by the bomb that is detonated at the church. The broader suggestion presented by this irony is that safety is never guaranteed, especially in a place rife with racial animus.

The poem’s dramatic irony arises from the reader’s foreknowledge of the tragic outcome. Randall offers an introductory note which makes it clear that the poem is about “the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.” Given this information, the reader is aware in advance of the explosion that occurs in the seventh stanza, casting the progression of the poem’s plot in a light of looming tragedy. 

Many readers will also be familiar with the history of the bombing in question: the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four Black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair—were killed...

(This entire section contains 829 words.)

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by terrorists associated with the Ku Klux Klan. There was a great deal of political and social activity in Birmingham in 1963. Birmingham had been one of the most racially segregated communities in the United States and thus became a focal point for both activists and reactionary forces as the civil rights movement gained steam. 

Randall’s poem appears to take two of the most important events that occurred in Birmingham in 1963 and collapse them into a single day for poetic effect. The first of these events is the series of marches and protests that occurred in May of 1963, including the Children’s Crusade, which may be the “Freedom March” the daughter refers to in the first stanza. The Children’s Crusade was an effort to draw attention to the civil rights movement by enlisting local Birmingham high school students to join in a protest. Martin Luther King, Jr., was initially opposed to the idea of involving youths, but the event came to be widely regarded as a success, drawing in a great deal of local support. The second event Randall touches on is the aforementioned 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September of 1963, an act of shocking violence that epitomized the racist forces against which the civil rights movement fought.