"Ballad of Birmingham" focuses on an era in American history that many Americans wish could be erased: the Jim Crow era, when segregation based on race was legally enforced in the South. As a result, African Americans were banned from many businesses, schools, and even parts of public transport. When the poem opens, a young African American girl begs to be allowed to join one of the many marches that sprang up in protest of these laws. Her mother, fearing the violence that could erupt by those looking to end the marches, refuses… but that doesn't mean her daughter is safe from the harm of racism.
Questions About Race
How do we know the race of the young girl? Why does Randall indicate her race in the way he does?
Is the race of the young girl and her mother integral to the poem? Why or why not?
Is racism the driving force behind the violence and destruction in the poem?
Chew on This
The poem emphasizes some of the ways an African American child in the South in 1963 would face considerable racism—even while attending church, school, or a peaceful march.
If the poem didn't specifically reference the event in Birmingham, it could be applied to events today.