"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.