18 pages 36 minutes read

Dudley Randall

Ballad of Birmingham

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1965

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“Ballad of Birmingham” is a narrative poem by Dudley Randall, a writer and publisher whose work during and after the 1960s was central to the poetry of the Black Arts Movement, during which Black artists created work for and about ordinary Black people. Randall published the poem in 1965 to mark the murder of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, four little girls who died when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. Structured in traditional ballad form, the poem is a testament to the bravery and outraged innocence of the children of the Civil Rights Movement.

Content Warning: The poem and this guide include references to fatal violence against children.

Poet Biography

Dudley Felker Randall was born in Washington, DC, in 1914. His parents, a minister and a teacher, moved the family to Detroit, Michigan, when Randall was nine. In both Washington and Detroit, Randall’s parents cultivated his literary tastes when they took him to hear public lectures and read books by important Black intellectuals and artists. Randall saw sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and poet/editor James Weldon Johnson speak. He read broadly in the literature produced by writers of the Harlem Renaissance, which unfolded during his early adolescence and teen years. Randall was precocious: He published his first poem in the Detroit Free Press when he was only 13 and graduated early from high school in 1930.

After high school, Randall worked for the Ford Motor Company and later enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. After the war, Randall completed an undergraduate degree in English at Wayne University in 1949; his early promise as a poet bore fruit when he received the Tompkins Award for Poetry as a freshman at Wayne State. In 1951, Randall completed his master’s degree in library science and subsequently worked as a librarian at several universities, including Morgan State University and the University of Michigan.

By the 1960s, Randall was deeply involved in literary and cultural movements that centered the experiences of Black Americans. Detroit was home to a thriving Black Arts scene, allowing Randall to forge professional relationships with Black poets of the era. Hoping to create a venue for Black poetry, Randall founded the Broadside Press in 1965; many of the important Black poets of the 1960s through the 1980s published with Broadside. The press’s first publication was a broadside (a poster-sized publication) of “Ballad of Birmingham.” Randall published poetry collections Poem Counterpoem with co-author Margaret Danner in 1966 and Cities Burning in 1968; these collections highlight frequent themes in his work, including the importance of the work of the Black artist and contemporary Black and urban identity.

Beyond publishing his own work, Randall wrote and edited several anthologies and collections that helped articulate the Black Aesthetic, the cultural and artistic arm of the Black liberation movements of the 1960s. In “The Black Aesthetic in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties”—Randall’s contribution to The Black Aesthetic (1971), the clearest statement of the aims of Black artists of the 1960s and 1970s—Randall argues that he and the poets of the era were creating something entirely new, art oriented to Black culture.

In subsequent decades, Randall served as a poet-in-residence, a poet laureate of Michigan, a professor, and a mentor in the service of Black poets. He published Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems (1981) and sold the Broadside Press in 1985. After a lifetime of publishing and mentoring Black poets, Randall died in 2000 at the age of 86.

Poem Text

Randall, Dudley. “Ballad of Birmingham.” 1965. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

In the first stanza, a little Black girl asks her mother if she may go to downtown Birmingham to participate in protests for civil rights. Her peers are there, and she is eager to make a difference instead of engaging in childish activities like playing.

In the second stanza, the girl’s mother tells the little girl she cannot go to the protests. The Birmingham police attack protestors, even children, with dogs, water hoses, clubs, and guns, so it isn’t safe for a little girl like her daughter to participate in the march.

In the third stanza, the daughter argues that she will be accompanied and protected by many of her young peers if she marches. Aside from that, the little girl wants to fight for her rights and make the United States a better place.

In the fourth stanza, the mother ends the discussion by telling the little girl there will be no protesting because the little girl could die if the police decide to attack. The mother tells the girl she can instead go to the nearby church to sing in the choir, assuming she will be safe there.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker describes the great care the mother takes in dressing and grooming the little girl. She does her hair, bathes her, and dresses her in white gloves and white shoes that make the girl the picture of childhood innocence.

In the sixth stanza, the mother is content as she imagines how safe her little girl will be as she sings at church. The speaker foreshadows some terrible future by noting that the mother will never smile again once subsequent events unfold.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker tells a tragic story. The mother is at home when she hears the sound of an explosion. The mother runs to the church and looks for her daughter.

In the eighth stanza, the mother sees that the church is destroyed. She digs through the rubble, frantically searching for her daughter. She finds one of the little girl’s shoes, but her body is nowhere to be found. The mother laments her lost child.

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