Ballad of Birmingham

Ballad of Birmingham

by Dudley Randall

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“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.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“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.”

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.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

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?”

Summary of Ballad of Birmingham

  • Popularity of “Ballad of Birmingham”: Dudley Randall, a distinguished African American poet wrote “Ballad of Birmingham”. It is a lyrical ballad known for the theme of losing a child to the violence. The poem was written as a response to the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was first published in 1965.
  • “Ballad of Birmingham” As a Representative of Death: The poem narrates the story of an African American daughter asking her mother’s permission to participate in the Freedom March in the streets of Birmingham. Her loving and fearful mother stops her from joining the march and sends her to church. She believes her daughter would be safer there instead of the streets. The mother hears an explosion and runs towards the church. She tries to find her daughter in the rubble after seeing her shoes. The readers can easily anticipate the ending of the poem. The daughter is killed in that massive explosion, and she would have safer in the protest.
  • Major Themes in “Ballad of Birmingham”: Mother’s love, death and fight against racism are the major themes of this poem. The poem presents a conflict between a daughter who wants to be part of the freedom march and the mother who desires to protect her child from the dangers of protesting. That is why she asks her daughter to spend time within the safe walls of the church. But ironically, the safest place turned out to be a fateful area where her daughter tragically dies.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in “Ballad of Birmingham”

Literary devices are tools used by writers to convey their emotions, ideas, and themes to make texts more appealing to the reader.  Dudley Randall has also used some literary devices in this poem to discuss a heart-wrenching historical incident. The analysis of the literary devices used in this poem has been given below.

  1. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “And march the streets of Birmingham”, “The mother smiled to know her child” and “She raced through the streets of Birmingham.”
  2. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sounds of /o/ and /a/ in “No, baby, no, you may not go.”
  3. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /s/ in “And clubs and hoses, guns and jails.”
  4. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sound of /f/ in “For I fear those guns will fire”, the sound of /w/ in “Her eyes grew wet and wild” and the sound /b/ in “But, baby, where are you?”.
  5. Symbolism: Symbolism means using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings different from literal meanings. Here, “Church” is the symbol of safety and religion and “white” symbolizes innocence and purity.
  6. Irony: Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in a way that their intended meaning is different from the spoken or written meaning. This poem is ironic because a church is usually thought of as a safe place, free from all evils, but the explosion killed the child.  It shows that her daughter would have lived if the mother had let her join the freedom march.
  7. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break; instead, it rolls over to the next line. For example,

“The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.”

  1. Metaphor: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between the objects different in nature. For example, “For the dogs are fierce and wild”. Here ‘dogs’ are metaphors for the far-right groups trying to suppress the American civil rights movement.

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “Ballad of Birmingham”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Ballad: A ballad is a poem that tells a story and is meant to be sung or recited. “Ballad of Birmingham” is one of the famous ballads of the 19th
  2. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are eight four-lined stanzas in this poem.
  3. Quatrain: A quatrain is a four-lined stanza borrowed from Persian poetry. Here, each stanza is quatrain.
  4. Repetition The following lines are repeated in the second and fourth stanzas of the poem which has created a musical quality in the poem. For example, “No, baby, no, you may not go.”
  5. Refrain: The line repeated at some distance in a poem is called a refrain. The verse, No, baby, no, you may not go” is repeated with the same words. Therefore, it has become a refrain in this ballad.

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below can be used parents as a warning their children about the dangers of going alone.

“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.”