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The 1960s were a tumultuous decade for America, especially if you lived in the southern half of the country. See, the South was still under Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation. As a result, marches, demonstrations, and protests sprung up all over the country in support of ending these laws and restoring civil rights to every American. Not everyone was on board, though; this movement was met with some pretty heavy backlash by folks who didn't want things to change.
Birmingham, Alabama was in the center of the storm, and many protests and marches were held in its streets. Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were on the scene, encouraging peaceable demonstrations. Even children joined in to march for equality. So, many Americans were shocked and horrified when, in response to these demonstrations, white supremacists bombed a church and caused the death of four young girls.
It is difficult for anyone to respond to such a tragedy, but Dudley Randall, an African American poet and writer of the time, put his sorrow into words in "Ballad of Birmingham." The simple, rhyming poem lends itself well to music, and so it was instantly made into a folk classic. (Randall officially published his original in 1965.) Because of the simple style, the heartbreaking subject matter, and the easy-to-remember lyrics, "Ballad of Birmingham" became Randall's most well-known work, one that has been memorialized and put to song in order to keep the spirit of equality alive.
Question: Does a poem need to be complicated in order for it to be good?
Answer: No sir-ee, Shmoopers.
On first look, "Ballad of Birmingham" might seem pretty straightforward. Its stylistically simple lines don't require a second glance; unlike Shakespeare's sonnets, you won't need to bust out the dictionary to grasp what is going on with this one. That, and its sing-song quality, might make you think you've stumbled onto a nursery rhyme by mistake.
But don't be fooled; the ballad's simplicity is part of its carefully-planned effect. Dudley Randall wanted the poem's message to be easily shared, and he figured having a simple and rhyming style might be the best way to go about that. Much like a catchy tune that doesn't get out of your head, his lines are easy to memorize. And, like the tragic images and history of the poem, they're hard to forget.
You should care about this poem, then, because it reminds us of a dark, dark period in American history—so that we might never repeat that same horror again. At the same time, though, you should be jazzed: this poem doesn't require too much heavy lifting in order for you to always keep it—and its powerful message—with you.
Birmingham Church Bombing
Read more on the tragic 1963 bombing.
"Ballad of Birmingham" Website
This is cool. Not every poem has its own website.
Learn more about the poet and his works here.
Birmingham Bombing Montage
Here's a video compiling some tragic images from the bombing.
Check out these videos about Birmingham's spot in the Civil Rights Movement.
Hear the words put to music.
Here's another version of the poem put to music.
Check out the poet and his trusty typewriter.
The Children's March
Here's an image from the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, 1963.
Washington Post Article
Read the news article from the day of the bombing.
Dudley's Life and Career
See why his influence is still felt today.
The Selected Writings
Get a selection of Randall's writings, collected in book form.
Carry Me Home
This book has more on Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement.