Analysis

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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.

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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 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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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 worries that her child could be jailed. Hearing her mother’s fears, the daughter appears unafraid and determined to participate in the freedom demonstration. The child responds in stanza 3 that she will not be alone, because “Other children will go with me,/ and march the streets of Birmingham/ to make our country free.” In the fourth stanza, the mother, worrying about gunfire, continues to tell her young daughter no. The mother then gives her permission to go to church instead and “sing in the children’s choir,” and the dialogue between child and mother ends.

Randall writes the remainder of “Ballad of Birmingham” in the third person. In the fifth stanza, the girl’s preparations for church are described: combing and brushing her hair, bathing, and putting on white gloves and white shoes. In stanza 6 the mother, no longer fearful for her child’s safety, smiles because her daughter is in church, “the sacred place”; then, in stanza 7, she hears the explosion. Her peace of mind is abruptly shattered, and with eyes “wet and wild” she runs toward the church “calling for her child.” The mother arrives at the church, the site of the bombing, in the final stanza. Amid the “bits of glass and brick,” she finds a shoe. “Ballad of Birmingham” ends with the distraught mother’s extremely brief monologue: “O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,/ but, baby, where are you?” The little girl does not respond. Never again can the daughter and mother engage in conversation. The child who eagerly wanted to raise her small voice in protest of social injustice has been silenced.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

“Ballad of Birmingham” is a tribute to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, the bombing’s four fatalities, as well as their mothers. Randall’s presentation of a nameless daughter and mother is significant. Although he focuses on one daughter, he honors all four deceased girls. His omission of names also allows him to represent and remember the anonymous multitude of victims of racism and the civil rights struggle and to remember the families left behind to mourn their dead. Thus “Ballad of Birmingham” is their tribute as well.

Randall’s nameless daughter and mother also represent the bonds that exist between daughters and mothers everywhere. An important message of the poem is that a mother’s love cannot protect her offspring from racism; nothing can. The most powerful aspect of this message is that as recently as 1963 in the United States there was no place safe from the destructive power of racism. The church is sacred ground, yet it proves to be no sanctuary.

“Ballad of Birmingham” concisely interprets a tragic event in American history and recalls the intense racial tensions and strong emotions of the civil rights era. Although there were many other important civil rights events, including the freedom rides, sit-ins, school desegregation attempts, bombings, fires, and racially motivated murders, the September 15, 1963, bombing of the Seventeenth Street Baptist Church remains among the most poignant moments in black Americans’ collective quest for equality, liberty, and identity. Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” is one of the most dramatic and memorable of the many works of literature that document the African American struggle for equality.

In 1977, fourteen years after the bombing, Robert Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was finally convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Federal authorities, continuing to believe that Chambliss had accomplices, reopened the case in 1980, 1988, and 1997—the last also being the year that filmmaker Spike Lee’s documentary film on the bombing, 4 Little Girls, debuted.

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