Ballad of Birmingham Summary
A young girl asks her mother if she can go downtown and participate in one of Birmingham's many freedom marches, saying she'd rather march than play outside. Her mother refuses; she's afraid that her daughter would be unsafe at the march because of the police dogs and other violence against the protestors, even though the daughter assures her that other children will be participating in the march. Instead, the daughter is allowed to go to church and sing in the children's choir. The daughter puts on a white dress and gloves and leaves, and the mother smiles to know that her daughter is safe at church instead of at the march. Then, she hears an explosion, and runs to the church to see what happened. She doesn't find her daughter in the rubble; all she can salvage is one of her daughter's white shoes.
(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
- Before we even start the poem, we have some geography and history to sort through, Shmoopers.
- Don't worry, this will be better than your fourth and fifth period classes at school.
- It looks like we're at a church in Birmingham, Alabama. More specifically, this church is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Civil rights leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., used it for meetings.
- Their choice for location was important. Birmingham was frequently the center of attention in the 1950s and 1960s for conflicts over Jim Crow laws, which legalized segregation in the South. Ever see old photographs of stores with signs that read "Whites Only"? That was legal in the Jim Crow era.
- As a response, movements were enacted all over the country, and Birmingham was the site of many marches to protest the unfairness of these laws.
- But some folks didn't want change, and they went to violent lengths to oppose the end of segregation. One horrifying case in point: on September 15, 1953, white supremacists bombed the church where these civil rights leaders held their meetings. Four young girls were killed in the bombing.
"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"
- What's the first thing you notice here, Shmoopers. Even before a single letter of the poem is out, we get quotation marks. That's because this poem is a conversation; it's written as a dialogue.
- So, that's all well and good, but who's speaking? Well, it turns out to be a child, wanting to participate in a "Freedom March," one of Birmingham's marches for civil rights in the early 1960s.
- History note: These marches occurred all over America, but Birmingham, heart of the South, was especially important to the movement. Many leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., held rallies and marches there. The demonstrations emphasized non-violent resistance; in fact, they were so peace-focused that even children, like the young girl in the poem, participated.
- The poem emphasizes that the child would rather join in on this march instead of play. Randall's characterizing her as a serious-minded young person. She also addresses her mother as "dear." So, she's serious and polite.
- Notice that this four-line stanza (called a quatrain in the poetry biz) has a sing-song quality? That's because of the poem's rhyme scheme. Don't sweat that too much for now. You can check out "Form and Meter" for the scoop.
"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren't good for a little child.
- The mother thinks that it is just too dangerous downtown.
- Why? Because many of these marches were broken up by the police. The mother mentions the dogs, clubs, hoses, and guns, which were often used to subdue people marching in these protests—even if the protestors weren't being violent. They are also symbols of the violence that many African Americans of this time had to endure.
- Police also jailed many of the protestors. Even Dr. King was taken to jail during a non-violent protest earlier in 1963. In fact, he wrote one of his most famous letters, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," while he was in his cell.
- But why would dogs or guns be a risk for a child? Surely they wouldn't be getting into any trouble downtown?
- Well, the mother's fear shows that anyone who participates in the marches would be at risk of police brutality, even if they were as innocent as a child.
- And he's also being historically accurate: there were plenty of children attending these marches, and several images depict them facing police brutality as a result.
- The mother doesn't want her daughter taking any risks, so she forbids her from going to the march.
"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free."
- The child is speaking again. She knows that other children attend the marches—which gives us a sense of the solidarity behind these marches. As well, she believes being in this company will make her more safe.
- So, why does she want to march? "To make [her] country free," she says. And she was right: the marches in Birmingham were instrumental to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One last thing before we go: who is this girl? We don't have a name or much else to go by, and we're nearly halfway done with the poem.
- Her anonymity is no accident, though. Randall is giving a voice to a child that can represent many children; we aren't given too many specifics, or even her name, for this reason.
"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children's choir."
- Despite her child's plea, the mother isn't going to budge. She's too afraid that the police will fire on the crowd of marchers. (This gives you a sense of the fear and violence that pervaded life for African Americans in the South during this time.)
- Instead, she says that her child can go to church and sing with the other children in the choir. Doesn't get much safer than that, right?
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
- Look at that: we've lost our quotation marks. That's because we've switched from dialogue to narration.
- What we learn from the speaker is that the daughter is getting ready for church. In describing the child, Randall uses descriptive imagery to show her innocence and her race. These are really the only details we get about this character.
- She's described figuratively as "rose petal sweet," dressed all in white. White clothing is often used as a symbol for purity, and flowers as a symbol of loveliness.
- At the same time, we're told that the girl's hair is "night-dark." This metaphor shows how deeply dark her hair is, but at the same time it gives us a clue that something ominous may be headed our way (after all, night is usually the time when bad things go down).
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
- The child is in "the sacred place": the church.
- This stanza has some foreshadowing. Things seem hunky-dory now, but we learn that the mother's comfort is her final joy in life. Something bad is coming: the mother never smiles again.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
- The church was bombed, as we know from the history referenced in the poem's title.
- It seems that, after she heard the explosion, the mother knew instantly that something had gone wrong, even though she couldn't have known that her daughter was involved at that point.
- At this point in the poem, we don't actually know if she was, either, though we have a bad feeling.
- The mother has that bed feeling, too. She races off to find her daughter with eyes that are "wide" with fear and "wet" with tears.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?"
- History tells us that four young girls died in the bombing of the church in Birmingham.
- The child's shoe is all that the mother can find in the rubble. It's also a symbol of the loss of life, and of innocence.
- The poem ends with the mother's cries as she searches for her daughter, whom we can assume has died in the bombing.
- The poem stops short of confirming this for us, though. Instead, we're left with the cries of a grief-stricken mother.