Ballad of Birmingham
Ballad of Birmingham
Dudley Randall 1965
Published in 1965, “Ballad of Birmingham” is significant both as an example of Dudley Randall’s use of traditional poetic form to talk about political events and as the first broadside—a large, single-sheet publication—to appear in the Broadside Series from his extremely influential Broadside Press. Randall holds an important place in America’s literary history, not only as an accomplished poet, but also as an editor and promoter of African-American poetry, publishing African-American writers at a time—the early and mid-1960s—when the civil rights movement had just begun to galvanize and unite previously unrecognized artists of color.
Throughout 1963, Americans had watched as civil rights demonstrators and racist city and government officials clashed in Birmingham, Alabama. On September 15, 1963, the tragic culmination of those events occurred when a bomb ripped through the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed four girls as they prepared for church. Randall personalizes this event in “Ballad of Birmingham” by recounting an imagined conversation between one of those girls and her mother. The child wants to participate in the children’s freedom marches led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but the mother is afraid to let her daughter be part of something she views as dangerous. But, as the poem points out, in a racist society, no place—no matter how sacred—can possibly be safe; the mother tells her daughter to go to church rather than march, but in the poem, it
is, ironically, the church that is the site of greatest danger for the child. The ballad form of the poem and the conversational quality of its language all make it very accessible to a range of readers—a quality Randall prizes in poetry. “Ballad of Birmingham” shows the potent voice poetry can have in the struggle for social justice and political change.
Randall was born in Washington, D.C., on January 14, 1914. His interest in poetry began when he was just a child and he published his first poem—a sonnet for which he won the prize of a dollar—in the Detroit Free Press on its “Young Poets’ Page.” His father was a minister who took him to see such influential speakers as W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, and his mother was a teacher. Randall worked for the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, from 1932 to 1937, an experience that sharpened his awareness of the feelings and lives of working people and affected his later writing. He was employed at the U.S. Post Office in Detroit while working on his bachelor’s degree in English at Wayne State University, and he served in the Army Air Corps before finishing his degree in 1949. He received a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Michigan in 1951 and went on to work as a librarian in Detroit. His interest in Russia led him to study and become fluent in the Russian language (from which he has frequently translated the work of other writers), and he established Broadside Press in 1965. He has won a number of awards for his literary contributions and was named the first Poet Laureate of Detroit in 1981.
In 1969, Paul Breman characterized Randall as “quietly dedicated to the revolution and quietly doing something about it.” Indeed, Randall’s work as Broadside’s editor has often been cited as his most important contribution to American letters. Beginning with “Ballad of Birmingham” in 1965 and his mythic, poetic rendering of Kennedy’s assassination in “Dressed All in Pink,” Randall’s own poems constituted the first two broadsides in his Broadside Series that published almost one hundred titles by 1982. For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X, coedited with Margaret G. Burroughs, appeared as the press’s first collection, and Randall went on to publish what would be the first anthology of African-American poetry published by an African-American publisher—Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets—in 1969. Under Randall’s leadership, Broadside Press first published or gained the publishing loyalty of such key African-American writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez.
Randall’s own collections of poetry include Poem Counterpoem (1966) with Margaret Danner, a collection that juxtaposed his and Danner’s thematically linked poems; Cities Burning (1968), published following the Detroit riot of 1967; Love You (1970), a collection of fourteen love poems; More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades (1971); After the Killing (1973), which considers racism and nationalism; Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (1975), which includes selections of Randall’s memoirs; A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems (1981), the collection most closely following Randall’s experience of suicidal depression: and Homage to Hoyt Fuller (1984). He has edited a number of other collections, including the 1971 Bantam anthology The Black Poets, and he has published essays and collections of nonfiction as well.
(On the Bombing of a Church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
“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, 5
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jail
Ain’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me, 10
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 15
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. 20
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, 35
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. 30
“O here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”
Randall’s title—“Ballad of Birmingham”— immediately creates specific expectations in the mind of the reader about what kind of poem this will be. By calling the poem a ballad, Randall places it within an ancient, and initially oral, folk tradition. Typically stories about events or people that were already known to a general audience, ballads often narrate the lives of social outcasts—outlaws such as Robin Hood—or those alienated from the main centers of power in society—like the poor folk for whom Robin Hood stole. Ballads are always stories, often with tragic endings, and they frequently rely on dialogue to tell their tales. They were originally sung, so we can expect that the poem will be strong, musically. Finally, by noting that it is a ballad about Birmingham, Randall signals to his readers what story he will probably be telling: some aspect of the civil rights struggle in Alabama and the events that took place there.
The very first stanza places the reader directly in the mind and voice of one of the characters of this story. Obviously, a child speaks here, because the speaker asks permission to go “downtown” to join those marching with the demonstrators for “freedom” rather than merely going “out to play.” Randall introduces a kind of gentle irony at this point by turning our expectations as to what a child would usually ask permission to do—go outside and play—upside down; we get the feeling that this child’s childhood is very different from what we imagine or tell ourselves childhood is or should be about. The child asks the question with affection—she calls her mother “dear”—so that we understand the relationship between them to be warm and loving.
In the next four lines, Randall introduces the second speaker in the poem: the mother. She tells her child—her “baby” as she says—that she can’t go with the marchers because it is too dangerous. Here, Randall incorporates what had become the central televised and photographed images in the American public’s mind of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham; the mother mentions the “fierce and wild” police dogs that were set upon the demonstrators, as well as the billy clubs, fire hoses, guns, and jails that were used to intimidate the marchers. Randall is not concerned here with introducing readers to the actual events that took place in Birmingham; he counts on a general recognition on the part of his readers to understand that when he says “hoses,” he means the tremendously powerful fire hoses that knocked demonstrators down to the streets of the city. He also plays on a strange expectation here; while we generally think of the police and the law—the highest kind of civilized body—as protective of citizens and their rights, the dogs that are extensions of police power are portrayed as savage and linked to whatever lies beyond the borders of law, order, and civilization. Randall also uses the word “ain’t” here to give us a sense that the mother is a less-educated woman, probably a member of the working class, and all the more a realistic and believable figure for that ungrammaticality.
- A cassette titled Broadside on Broadway: Seven Poets Read was released in 1970 by Broadside Voices. Dudley Randall, Jerry Whittington, Frenchy Hodges, Sonia Sanchez, Don L. Lee, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks read.
The child responds here and tries to persuade her mother to let her go by pointing out that other children will be marching. She likewise explains why they’re marching—“to make our country free.” The speaker in these lines uses a typical ploy to convince her mother to let her do what she wants to; everyone else is doing it, she suggests. But again, because of what she’s asking to do, something so solemn and seemingly unchildlike as promote freedom in America, we are reminded of how this child’s life simply does not fit the myth of innocence we usually associate with childhood. By this point, too, it is apparent that Randall wants us to feel the intimacy and reality of this conversation as well as its immediacy by letting us overhear it as if we were present in the room. Again, Randall counts on his reader’s awareness of the happenings in Birmingham when he refers specifically to the way in which civil rights leaders Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth organized demonstrations composed specifically of younger people.
In this stanza, the mother still refuses to let her child go, telling her that she is afraid of the violence that may occur. It is here, in lines 15 and 16, that the poem’s central irony is introduced: while the mother won’t allow her child to march with the demonstrators because she’s afraid of how dangerous it might be, she encourages her to go to “sing in the children’s choir” and “go to church instead,” trusting that the church will be a protected, safe place.
In this fifth stanza, Randall offers us narrative description, rather than dialogue, to continue the story. In itself, such a shift sets up some kind of change in the poem’s line of action. The activity described in these lines is all preparatory; the daughter combs her hair, washes herself “rose petal sweet,” and puts on white gloves and white shoes. The action is all lovingly described and, because the “she” of the stanza lacks a clear referent and only ambiguously refers to the daughter rather than the mother, the action described in this section echoes the washing and dressing of the dead that traditionally was a familial and communal preburial ritual, a dressing as tenderly undertaken as is this preparatory washing. Randall’s use of the color white for the little girl’s gloves and shoes has multiple and possibly opposing connotations. On one hand, white is the traditional color of purity and innocence, surely everything we would associate with the kind of sweet child described in this poem. But white also symbolizes an oppressive power for this girl and her mother, and it may be symbolic that both her hands and feet—those limbs with which we write, make things, and literally move in the world—are, in fact, encased in that color, reminding us of the control it has over them.
These four lines feel somewhat abrupt and, in fact, act as a kind of warning to the reader that something wrong is now certain to occur. While the mother is comforted by the thought that her child is in “the sacred place,” Randall tells us in no uncertain terms that she will not smile again. The “sacred place” referred to here may also suggest a more expansive sacred place such as heaven; this allows the poem to imagistically foreshadow what will happen at the end of the poem—the child will be killed.
The event the poem has had us anticipating finally occurs here in stanza 7. The mother hears “the explosion” that Randall would have expected his reader to understand as a reference to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Obviously, the mother is afraid and, even before she even knows for certain what has happened to her daughter, fears the worst, her eyes “wet and wild.” She runs through the city, calling for her.
In this final stanza, what we have feared would come to pass indeed does. The mother digs through the debris at the bombed church and finds only a shoe belonging to her daughter. The poem’s last two lines are a brief and painful return to dialogue as the mother plaintively and helplessly exclaims that the shoe she holds is indeed her daughter’s, but asks, “baby, where are you?” Randall elaborates on the mother’s fear and grief that he introduced in the previous stanza by using the word “clawed” to indicate the desperate scramble the mother makes at the bomb site to find her child and by addressing the last line of the poem directly to the child, who we now understand is dead. The painful futility of the mother’s actions is apparent in this line. Likewise, Randall skillfully avoids describing a grotesque scene of mangled human remains while hinting at such when he depicts the mother going through the “bits of glass and brick”—small chunks of sturdy building materials that are all that remain of that section of the church—and when the mother finds only the shoe. The shoe, in and of itself, is a powerful image with which to end the poem. It is evocative of the tiny shoes parents bronze as mementoes of their children’s childhoods, but it also reminds us of what the daughter initially asked permission to do—to march in the streets for freedom, an activity that was, sadly and ironically, not the most dangerous thing she could have done that day. The poem leaves us with the understanding that the most dangerous threat to this child’s life was not the demonstrations staged by the freedom marchers, but, instead, the racism those demonstrations nonviolently opposed.
The scene Randall describes in “Ballad of Birmingham” provides the reader with a personalized view of the struggle against racism fought by the demonstrators and activists of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Relying on his readers’ awareness of the events in Birmingham, Randall dramatizes what happened there from a unique, intimate perspective in order to bring the situation into the sharpest possible focus for his reader. The mother and daughter who converse throughout the first four stanzas of the poem provide a very human, sympathetic portrait of how the struggle against racism affected real people. In fact, by downplaying the presence of race in this poem, Randall even more effectively battles against the consequence of thinking about the value of people as determined by the color of their skin. Randall never makes direct reference to the African-American identity of these speakers, and by not doing so, he highlights the unimportance of such a detail for any reader’s understanding of what this mother must have felt like when she realized her child had been killed by a bomb while at church.
The poem also illustrates the fact that it is racism—not the struggle against it—that threatens the safety of individuals in society. The mother in this poem makes an understandable mistake by judging Birmingham’s civil rights demonstrations as too dangerous for a child to participate in. Yet the central and poignant irony of Randall’s ballad is precisely this: that racism endangers the little girl’s life at least as powerfully, if not far more, than any action she may take against it. By arguing that others will be marching with her as she does in lines 9 and 10, the child expresses a central tenet of any struggle for social and political equality—namely, united we stand, but divided we fall. Randall’s ballad, then, effectively argues against passivity on the parts of those treated unjustly in our society, giving hard evidence of the danger implicit in such fear of action or in apathy. He also clarifies the way in which racism turns all of our realities inside out and upside down, so that a child could be more courageous than an adult in the struggle against this oppression, and a church could be more dangerous than a street filled with vicious dogs, violent policemen, and high-pressure fire hoses.
Victims and Victimization
Typical of the ballad form that leaves its audience to flesh out the details of its story given its heavy emphasis on character rather than development of plot, “Ballad of Birmingham” demands a reader’s knowledge of the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to fully appreciate the nuances of the story it tells. But without that knowledge, Randall’s poem tells a more simple story, if just as tragic. A woman tries to protect her daughter from a threatening world and learns that no place is necessarily safe from the violence occurring around her. At its most basic level, “Ballad of Birmingham” pulls us through the heartbreaking experience of a tragic loss and exposes us to the senselessness of such a victimization. Both the murdered child and the mother are victims, and no reader can miss the agony in the mother’s voice—in lines 31 and 32—when she finds her
Topics for Further Study
- Write a ballad of your own about some contemporary event or story that your peers would recognize. Use the traditional ballad stanza form and make your own decorated, single sheet broadside of the piece.
- Find all of the words that are stressed in “Ballad of Birmingham” and make a list of them, keeping in mind the stress pattern of the traditional ballad stanza. Why do you think these words receive special emphasis in the poem? Are there others you were surprised to find were not accented? What part would you say meter plays in the meaning of “Ballad of Birmingham?”
daughter’s shoe and asks the most difficult question posed in the poem: “O, here’s the shoe my baby wore, / but, baby, where are you?” Death has claimed her daughter and whatever myths we embrace regarding what that means, none of them, Randall seems to suggest, can finally provide real comfort in the shape of a clear meaning or significance for the brutally final form it takes here. By ending the poem in such an open fashion, though, Randall seems to present the question of how we deal with death when it comes in such a violent, raging form; how can victims like this mother respond in such a way as to give her child’s death appropriate significance? By making her child’s shoe the evidence the mother finds, Randall may be encouraging the reader to see this as an invitation for the mother to join the march her daughter now cannot and to move out of the space of passive victimization and into one of peaceful, but determined action.
“Ballad of Birmingham” follows the metrical structure of a traditional folk ballad. Ballads utilize the ballad stanza which consists of four lines that rhyme in an abcb rhyme scheme. In other words, in each stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme, while the first and third lines do not. The metrical, rhythmical pattern of the ballad decides how many syllables will be stressed in each of those four lines; the first and third lines of each stanza will contain four emphasized syllabic stresses, while the second and fourth will each contain three. When working with metrical forms (something Randall was particularly fond of), the challenge for the poet becomes how to vary the format ever so slightly so as to add rhythmic tension to the piece or, in Randall’s case, a heightened sense of music. In “Ballad of Birmingham,” Randall generally maintains the three- and four-stress line pattern of the traditional folk ballad stanza, but he does vary the total number of syllables from line to line. Reading the poem aloud makes it clear that there is a fairly regulated pattern of stresses at work in the poem, but extra unstressed syllables before and between the more clearly accented ones can allow for a sound not unlike a musical trill. For instance, the first two syllables in line 6 trip over the tongue to get us to the most important syllables and words in that line: “for the” are both unstressed syllables, while “dogs,” “fierce,” and “wild” carry the three central stresses of the line. By using accented syllables in this way, Randall underlines the importance of select words in the poem by rhythmically directing the reader to give them extra emphasis when the poem is read aloud. But, by altering the number of overall beats per line, Randall actually gives “Ballad of Birmingham” a fuller musical tone.
Repeating lines or refrains also appear as stock features in ballads, and “Ballad of Birmingham” offers such repetition in two forms. First of all, the stanzas that document the mother and daughter’s question-and-answer session quickly construct a formula to be followed, so that we can predict what is likely to come next in this conversation between the two; we know that the daughter will ask to go march, give a reason why she should be allowed, and that the mother will say no. The form that “no” will take appears as the poem’s only real refrain and is its second instance of repetition: “No, baby, no, you may not go,” the mother says each time her daughter poses the question. The poem’s closing line recalls this refrain, echoing the mother’s command in her own confused final question as she, who has told her child she can’t go to march and place herself in danger, now hopelessly wonders where indeed her child has gone.
If you were an African American in the 1950s and early 1960s in the southern United States, you lived under a separate code of behavior than your white counterparts. You only drank from water fountains labelled “Colored,” you went to “Colored Only” movie theaters, you went to schools that taught only other African-American children and received only a fraction of the funding white schools did, you rode in the rear “Colored” section of the bus, and understood that it was in some states illegal for you to even play checkers in public with white people. This was segregation, and it was the result of a series of “Jim Crow laws” that white, southern lawmakers had established after the Civil War (Jim Crow was a stock comic character in black-face minstrel shows first introduced in the nineteenth century). Southern planters were angry over the emancipation of the African Americans who had been previously enslaved by them and who had provided the unpaid labor on which their economic system and wealth were founded prior to the Civil War. Segregation was the social and legal result of the social inequity created by that system, and other forms of more violent intimidation accompanied it—actions including the public harassment, lynching, bombing, and murder of random African Americans by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Usually, local southern officials did not trace such actions to any particular figure, and even if they did, the stronghold powerful racists exerted on the legal system in the South insured that few of these perpetrators would ever actually be prosecuted for their crimes.
It was in the 1950s that more and more people—both African American and white—began to question and confront this system of inequity, creating the civil rights movement. African Americans themselves had been resisting the limits of their position in American society since the time the first Africans were kidnapped and brought to America as slaves. But the civil rights movement was a composite of actions and events that led to the most substantial change in the legal and political status of nonwhite persons in America since the nationwide abolition of slavery following the Civil War. The civil rights movement consisted of organized and sustained public protests and demonstrations like the Montgomery bus boycott and other nonviolent displays of civil disobedience promoted and led by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The movement also consisted of specific legal cases, such as the Supreme Court judgment that decided that educational segregation was unconstitutional, and therefore illegal, in the 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The movement both affected and was affected by specific political events, including the election of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States in 1960. And it also, sadly, was shaped by acts of violence, such as the 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who enraged a group of white men in Mississippi when he spoke to a white woman in a store on a dare from his friends. His body was found three days later, a bullet in his head, an eye missing, and barbed wire wrapping the fan from a cotton gin to his neck. Events and actions like this created the civil rights movement and gave it the momentum, purpose, and shape to address one of the most enduring systems of social injustice ever to be seen in this country.
Birmingham, Alabama, played a key role in the civil rights movement in America. The largest city in Alabama at the beginning of the 1960s, Birmingham was, according to SCLC leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” On Mother’s Day in 1961, a mob had attacked Freedom Riders (black and white demonstrators riding buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in defiance of segregation policies pertaining to interstate travel) as they entered Birmingham; the Birmingham police did nothing to stop the attack. The incident had drawn national attention to Birmingham, and the local leader of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), Reverend Fred Shut-tlesworth, convinced King to take the city on as his next site for nonviolent action against segregation. Birmingham had been nicknamed “Bombingham” because of the eighteen unsolved bombings that had occurred there between 1957 and 1963 (Shut-tlesworth’s own home had been completely destroyed by a bomb in 1956). It was time for Birmingham to move forward, civil rights leaders decided, and 1963 would be the year of concentrated demonstrations and protest marches all geared to force city officials to negotiate with black leaders in the attempt to end segregation in the downtown and financial sectors of the city. Using the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as their headquarters, the civil rights leaders developed “Project C” and began the protests in March.
Compare & Contrast
- 1957-63: Eighteen unsolved bombings in primarily African-American neighborhoods and locales earn Birmingham, Alabama, the nickname “Bombingham.”
1995-96: More than thirty African-American churches in the South—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—are burned in what are feared to be racially motivated crimes.
1998: A bomb explodes outside of a women’s clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, that performs abortions; an off-duty police officer is killed and a nurse is severely wounded.
- 1960: The median annual income for African Americans is $3,000, less than half of what it is for white households.
1990: In Selma, Alabama—one of the poorest sections of the country—the median household income for white households is $25,580 and, for African-American households, $9,615. Nationally, African Americans make about $63 for each $100 made by whites.
- 1970: Five times as many African-American workers between the ages of 24 and 44 are high school dropouts, as opposed to college graduates. Among all young professionals, only one in twenty is African American.
1990: Almost as many African-American workers between the ages of 24 and 44 are college graduates as high school dropouts. Among all young professionals, one in twelve is African American.
- 1963: On August 28, more than 250,000 marchers descend on Washington, D.C., in the largest public demonstration held in this country, to protest the poverty, segregation, and lack of civil rights for African Americans.
1989: On April 10, more than 500,000 people march in Washington, D.C., to show their support of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal in the United States.
1995: On October 17, approximately 400,000 African-American men participate in the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., to reinvorgate public interest in the problems of racial division and injustice in America.
- 1965: On March 7, later dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” mounted police use tear gas and billy clubs to stop some six hundred demonstrators marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in support of voting rights and protected registration for African Americans. The Selma March helped galvanize federal support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
1995: On March 10, civil rights leaders and workers march in Selma to commemorate the 1965 demonstration; former Alabama governor George Wallace, staunch segregationist of the 1960s turned apologist, joins the group, holding hands with those his policies and actions had at times brutally opposed thirty years before.
The events that took place in Birmingham quickly made the city a national symbol of the struggle and difficulty incurred by opponents of segregation. Police under the authority of the Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety, T. Eugene “Bull” Connor, used police dogs and fire hoses— powerful enough to tear the bark off trees—to disperse demonstrators that King, Shuttlesworth, and others organized and led. Although specifically forbidden to do so by a court injunction, King—and 132 other civil rights leaders—led another march downtown on April 12, Good Friday, and was subsequently arrested. Four days later, he completed his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that explained to local white clergymen (who had publicly denounced King’s actions) why this was indeed the time to act against segregation. Finally, movement leaders took an unprecedented approach when they recruited children—ranging in age from 6 to 18—for special Freedom Marches; many people were concerned about the risk involved in such a move, but the media coverage that resulted from those marches helped galvanize national support for what the demonstrators were attempting to do. On the first day of these marches, Connor and his men arrested 959 children, using school buses to carry them to jail. The next day, more than a thousand children stayed out of school to march, and Connor called out the dogs and fire hoses. The African-American community, enraged by Connor’s attack on their children, came out in even greater numbers to demonstrate. The American public at large watched the nightly news in horror as children were attacked by dogs and washed down the streets of the torn city.
More than two thousand demonstrators had been sent to jail by May 6, and, concerned by the image of America such media coverage was sending to the rest of the world, President Kennedy sent a federal aide to work with King and local business leaders on negotiations. The day after an initial agreement was announced, bombs went off at the home of King’s brother and the hotel where the movement leaders had been staying. Riots ensued, and Kennedy sent federal troops to nearby Fort Mc-Clellan to ward off further disturbances to the fragile peace already established. In part a response to the events in Birmingham, Kennedy sent a civil rights bill to Congress in June, and, in support of this bill’s passage, civil rights groups and leaders from around the country held in August what was then the largest public demonstration in American history—more than 250,000 people—in Washington, D.C., where King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” oration.
Despite the success of the march on Washington, just weeks later, on a Sunday morning before church, a bomb went off in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Eleven-year-old Denise McNair and fourteen-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were all killed in the blast on September 15. Much later, in 1977, the state’s key witness, the defendant’s niece, named her Klan-affiliated uncle, Robert Chambliss, as the man centrally responsible for the action. Fourteen years after the bombing, Chambliss was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The struggle for human civil rights continues, and in 1992, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened—its mission to educate visitors about the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s and to further their understanding of how people all over the world continue to struggle for equality. In 1998 Spike Lee received an Academy Award nomination for his documentary 4 Little Girls, in which he retells the story of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church through interviews with friends and family members of the four murdered girls. While still a largely segregated city with weighty problems of black poverty and crime, Birmingham has begun to address its history as the rest of the country remembers those who died as a result of it.
Randall receives mention and praise in historical accounts of African-American literature most often as an editor, founder, and head of Broadside Press. In his contribution to The Black American Writer series, Paul Breman writes almost exclusively about Randall’s work as a publisher, and Richard Barksdale and Kenneth Kinnamon, in their volume Black Writers in America, claim that “undoubtedly, Randall’s most notable contribution is not his poetry but the arrangements he has made to facilitate the publication of the poetry of young men and women who, without his aid and counsel, would have remained ‘Black and Unknown Bards’ just as their early forefathers did.” These scholars note that Randall serves as a kind of “bridge connecting an older generation of poets with a younger generation,” and they highlight Randall’s work as a translator of Russian and French as well as noting the range of styles he utilized in his poetry.
When “Ballad of Birmingham” is specifically mentioned by Randall’s critics, it receives most attention as the first broadside to be published by the press. But it also reflects Randall’s “firm sense of the lyric,” according to Ron Welburn, so powerfully as to have been a natural choice for the musical adaptation it was given by New York folk singer Jerry Moore. Other critics highlight Randall’s sense of formalism, particularly R. Baxter Miller and D. H. Melhem. In an essay titled “‘Endowing the World and Time’: The Life and Work of Dudley Randall,” Miller argues that Randall’s poetry, “so accomplished technically and profoundly concerned with the history and racial identity of Blacks, benefits from the ideas and literary forms of the Harlem Renaissance as well as from the critical awareness of the earlier Western Renaissance.” In an article in Black American Literature Forum, D. H. Melhem mixes his own critical readings of selected poems by Randall with Randall’s own reflections on his work, culled from a personal interview with the poet. Preceding his discussion of “Ballad of Birmingham,” Melhem claims that Randall’s strongest poems in Cities Burning, (one collection in which “Ballad of Birmingham” appears) “employ the lyrical understatement of black folk poetry and the terseness of blues, ‘ballards,’ spirituals, and seculars, and of old English ballads ... in which deep feeling compresses into rhythm, rime, and the tragic frame.” He describes “Ballad of Birmingham” as “complementing both subject and genre [the ballad form itself]” with a “spare dignity.” Melhem and others also indicate that Randall’s use of the broadside format to distribute this and other poems on similar themes of social injustice is appropriate given the broadside’s historic use as a tool for political provocation. Prior to and during the American Revolution, for instance, Thomas Paine used the broadside format to distribute writings he composed to stir up support among his fellow colonists for American independence. But, as Melhem also adds, despite his political interest, Randall’s “deep concern was always for the best poetry.”
Randall’s work has also been hailed in poetry by other writers. In his “For Dudley Randall,” Lenard D. Moore describes a reading by Randall in which his poems “... stretch eyes wide / make lips hang / pierce eardrums deep / and send brothers & sisters sliding / to the edge of their seats.” For Moore, Randall’s words are “gems” and a “reminiscence of Blackness.”
Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in Cinema Studies. In the following essay, Hochman provides the background concerning the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
On September 15, 1963, at 10:25 a.m. on a Sunday morning, an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, blew apart. When the rubble settled, fourteen people were injured, and four girls were found dead—buried under pieces of the building. They were Denise McNair, age 11; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carol Robertson, 14; and Addie Mae Collins, 14. The four girls killed in the blast had just, moments before, heard their teacher, Mrs. Ella C. Demand complete the Sunday-school lesson for the day, “The Love That Forgives.”
While African-American leaders in the city did not counsel forgiveness, they did plead with the black community to contain their anger. This, understandably, was only partially successful. According to a New York Times article on September 16, 1963, “hundreds” of blacks took to the streets. While the report of the aftermath is, at best, sketchy, five whites were reported injured and two black youths were dead. One of these youths, Johnny (or James) Robinson, age 16, was shot in the back by police as he ran from them. A second, Virgil Wade, age 13, was attacked and killed by a group whites while riding his bike. As three buildings burned and people fought in the streets, the police poured into the streets to contain the explosion of black rage and white hate.
The church had blown apart as a result of at least fifteen sticks of dynamite, probably lobbed into a window by a passing car. Just five days after three, all-white schools were forcibly desegregated, the church, which had been used for civil rights organizing as well as religious activities, became the site of the fourth bombing incident in less than a month, the twenty-first in eight years, and the forty-first in sixteen years. Birmingham came to be known as “Bombingham,” and a black section of the city, “Dynamite Hill.” The targets of all of the bombings were either the homes of African Americans moving into previously white neighborhoods, the homes of civil rights leaders, or African-American churches. Though white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) openly preached hate and local white officials publicly supported segregation, not one of these bombings was ever solved. Perhaps it was incredible that the explosion of September 15, 1963, marked the first time anyone had been killed in these racist bombings.
The subtitle of “Ballad of Birmingham” reads “(On the Bombing of a Church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963).” But in Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets (1988), in which “Ballad of Birmingham” is included, Randall’s subtitle has been left out. Why? My hypothesis is that this poem is
What Do I Read Next?
- Randall’s first book publication from Broadside Press was the collection of poems he coedited with Margaret G. Burroughs commemorating the life and work of assassinated African-American activist Malcolm X called For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1969). Learn more about Malcolm X from Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).
- Other poets have also written poems about the Birmingham church bombing. Raymond Patterson’s “Birmingham nineteen sixty three” appears in Celebrations: A New Anthology of Black American Poetry (1977) and Langston Hughes’s “Four Little Girls” can be found in the collection he edited with Arna Bontemps, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970 (revised edition, 1970).
- Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks was one of Randall’s Broadside poets and someone he esteemed highly for her ability to deeply connect and communicate with others. She published her autobiography, Report from Part One (1972), with Broadside, and her Selected Poems (1982) provides a good overview of the progression of her writing over several decades.
- Randall wrote a dialogue in poetic form in which African-American leaders Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois express their views on racial development and progress in America; you can find it reprinted in Richard Barksdale and Kenneth Kinnamon’s Black Writers of America (1972). Find out more about Washington’s ideas in his autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901) and more about Du Bois’s ideas in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
- The civil rights movement has been the topic of numerous novels as well as poems. Alabama writer Vicki Covington’s The Last Hotel for Women (1996) tells the story of Dinah Fraley and the struggles that occur in her household when she takes an injured freedom rider into her care, against the wishes of the belligerent “Bull” Connor who was once in love with Dinah’s mother.
not simply about the bombing of September 15, 1963, but is more generally about Birmingham during the civil rights years and, specifically, about a strategy used by civil rights leaders several months prior to September 15, 1963. It is Randall’s juxtaposition of these two historically separated events—the incidents of several months prior and the September 15 bombing—that is the real creative genius of this poem.
Let us back up about five months from September 15, 1963, to April 20. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy accepted release on bail from the jail cell where King had been held after being arrested during a demonstration and where he wrote his 6,500-word “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Immediately after leaving jail, both King and Abernathy went to the nearby Gaston Motel to plan the next phase of “Project C”—their plan for desegregating Birmingham. There they met James Bevel, a veteran of the student sit-ins in Nashville. Bevel had a provocative plan: to use children in protests and demonstrations. Bevel’s argument was that while many African-American adults were reluctant to march for the very real fear of losing their jobs, children had no such fear. Furthermore, the spectacle of children being hauled off to jail would hopefully unsettle the white public. As Bevel said, “Most adults have bills to pay—house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills, but the young people ... are not hooked with all those responsibilities. A boy from high school has the same effect in terms of being in jail, in terms of putting pressure on the city, as his father, and yet there’s no economic threat to the family, because the father is still on the job.” While King was back in the clutches of the law to stand trial, civil rights leaders recruited
“Birmingham came to be known as ‘Bombingham,’ and a black section of the city, ‘Dynamite Hill.’”
black schoolchildren from all over the city. Before any demonstrations, the children were instructed to first see a film, The Nashville Story, about a student sit-in. On Thursday, May 2, Martin Luther King, free from jail pending appeal, addressed a gathering of the children—ranging in age from six to eighteen—at the site of the future bombing, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Then the children marched downtown in a demonstration where they sang freedom songs. By the end of the day, the police jailed more than 959 children. Despite a request to King from President Kennedy to stop using children, more than 1,000 African-American children stayed away from school the next day and gathered at the Sixteenth Street Church to march. This time, the police moved in with attack dogs, and firemen marshalled high-pressure water hoses. With German shepherds attacking and 100 pounds of water pressure per square inch being sprayed at them, children were sent running and rolling through the streets. Angered, blacks now consolidated behind King, but the next day, as James Bevel attempted to calm them, African Americans brandished guns and knives. The marches grew, and by Monday, May 6, more than 2,000 demonstrators had been jailed, either in Birmingham or at the temporary site at the Alabama state fairgrounds. On Tuesday, police again met protesters with hoses and dogs, while journalists shot it all for newspapers and television. Governor George Wallace, an ardent segregationist, called out 500 state troopers. Angry at the whole affair, Kennedy sent in Burke Marshall to try and settle the conflict. After a KKK rally denouncing the agreement between business and civil rights leaders, two bombs went off at Martin Luther King’s brother’s home and at the Gaston Motel where King was staying. Violence erupted again and thirty-five blacks and five whites were injured as police pummeled blacks with clubs and rifles. President Kennedy, on the urging of his brother Robert, readied the National Guard just outside of Birmingham and threatened to send them into the city. This and other tactics finally ended the immediate violence in the streets. But on June 11, Governor Wallace would stand in the doorway of the University of Alabama, blocking entrance to two black students who had been admitted. Stepping aside because of threats from the federalized National Guard, the university became integrated for the first time in its history. Kennedy was so angered by events in Birmingham that he sent a new Civil Rights Bill to Congress on June 19, calling for the outlawing of all public segregation, allowing the attorney general to initiate suits for school integration, and granting the right to cut off funds to any federal program violating the new laws against segregation. To urge the passing of the bill, civil rights leaders marched on Washington on August 28, 1963, a march in which more than 250,000 people heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The Civil Rights Bill was signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964. And so the story that began with marching school children in Birmingham ended by having a major impact on the nation.
In “Ballad of Birmingham,” the little girl has a choice of either going to out to play, to a protest march, or to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for Sunday services. But unlike the little girl in the poem, none of the four girls killed in the church blast on September 15 had such a choice. No freedom march was planned for that Sunday, a day of the week more often than not reserved for recuperation and religious worship. Randall brought into proximity two sets of events separated by a space of six months into one Sunday morning to make a key point: that though the church is usually the place of community, safety, salvation, and God—and the civil rights march often a locale of danger, death, and white attackers—the African-American church had become an even more dangerous place than the freedom march. Attacked in their homes and churches, with even their children being murdered, African Americans had no place of security—nowhere they could escape the ugliness of white America. With no acceptable place to turn, it became clearer and clearer that renewed and united confrontation with whites was black America’s only hope for deliverance. To gain any salvation in the world of the living, African Americans would have to keep up the pressure on whites by letting freedom sing—not just from choirs in the church, but from congregations in the streets.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
A widely published poet and fiction writer, Chris Semansky teaches literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Semansky discusses the significance of Randall’s use of the ballad form in “Ballad of Birmingham.”
In the twentieth century, poetry has had the reputation of being difficult to read. This holds true even for those who read often and widely. Poetry has “won” this reputation because of its frequent use of obscure allusions (think of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot), its often difficult metaphors (think of Wallace Stevens), and its heightened self-reflexivity. It has not won a large audience outside of academia because readers do not see how it relates to their own lives. This has not been the case with Dudley Randall’s poetry, much of which was written in a direct, accessible style with clear references to the world outside of the poem. His “Ballad of Birmingham” is one such poem. Written to memorialize the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church that killed four young girls, Randall’s poem uses a conventional poetic form (the ballad) that incorporates dialogue, understandable historical allusions, and—though the poem tells the story of a historical event with real people—stock characters to evoke sympathy, shock, and outrage from the reader.
Because many later twentieth-century poets were interested in probing the limits of language and stretching the “readability” of their poems, the ballad—one of the most traditional and highly readable verse forms—has not been used much. Instead, poets with widely diverse styles—such as Elizabeth Bishop, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ashbery—probed organic forms, which arose from the subject matter itself, rather than fitting their words into a prescribed format. By using the ballad form, Randall signals that he wants to reach as wide an audience as possible. Historically defined, ballads were songs passed on orally that told a story with action and dialogue, most often without reference to the narrator’s personal feelings or attitudes toward the subject matter. Using the third-person point of view is effective, because the audience is free to focus on the story itself, rather than having to think about the relationship between the speaker and the story or emotion expressed. In using the ballad to commemorate a tragic incident in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, Randall helped the story of the Birmingham bombing reach almost mythic proportions.
“This identification on the part of the reader with the characters gives the poem the kind of emotional punch Randall intended ....”
Focusing on the relationship between a mother and her child allows Randall to evoke as much horror and pathos as possible from the story. Represented as an obedient, dutiful child who not only does what her mother tells her but who also does what is morally right (desiring to take part in a freedom march), the little girl embodies the virtues and ideals of the civil rights movement. Randall’s description of her preparation for church emphasizes her innocence and vulnerability:
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.
Although these lines help us visualize the girl’s appearance, we are unsure of whether the girl is dressing herself or if the mother is dressing her. If she is dressing herself, we see the image of a young child dutifully doing what she has no doubt done many times before: preparing for participation (singing in the children’s choir) in a ritual supposedly far from the ongoing demonstrations in the streets. If the mother is dressing her, we see the image of a possibly recalcitrant child being put in her place by her mother. The distinction is important, because reading it the latter way highlights the very real generational tensions inherent in the civil rights movement. Younger African Americans (and many whites) were more likely to publicly demonstrate for equal rights, while many older African Americans often chose the relative safety of social institutions such as the church to voice their grievances and pray for better days. Juxtaposing the girl’s “night dark hair” and “small brown hands” with her white gloves and shoes echoes the “black and white” issues of the civil rights movement itself.
The mother in Randall’s poem is both the mother of one of the four girls killed in the bombing and a universal mother figure who desires to shield her child from potential danger. Using these characters—who were directly involved in the bombing—rather than, say, an eyewitness to the carnage, allows Randall to extract as much emotional capital as possible from his readers. Because we can visualize what the little girl looked like, we are all the more shocked in the final stanza, when we discover the daughter has been buried in the rubble of the bomb. We can see the mother holding up her daughter’s little white shoe and crying out for her, just as we’ve seen mothers and fathers and children digging in the rubble of an explosion or natural catastrophe crying out for their loved ones in numerous television news reports. This familiar, late-twentieth-century image doesn’t diminish the impact of the tragedy; it heightens it, as it personalizes what has become a more-or-less generic image of horror and loss in our time. Such stock personalization also functions to sentimentalize the image. Sentimentalism isn’t necessarily a pejorative term, but one defined by history. Eighteenth-century novels of sensibility, for example, relied on sentimental plots and descriptions to elicit strong emotional responses from their readers. What were considered humane and original representations two hundred years ago, however, are now often laughed at by experienced readers. But Randall’s use of sentimentalism and his poem aren’t aimed at an elite readership of literature but, instead, are geared to the general public—many of whom don’t read poetry or fiction regularly, so they wouldn’t see the poem as using overtly manipulative rhetorical devices.
The imagined dialogue between the mother and the daughter also serves to sentimentalize the story and to underscore the ironically tragic fate of the daughter. The daughter asks her mother if she can take part in a freedom march instead of going out to play. Freedom marches, though intended to be peaceful protests for African Americans in the 1960s, often turned violent, as local police—ignoring the very civil rights the marchers were fighting for—used force to break up the demonstrations. By voicing her desire to march instead of play, the daughter appears as a martyr figure in the very first stanza of the poem. Randall emphasizes the irony of the mother’s refusal to allow her daughter to march by having the mother spell out her reasons:
“No, baby, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jail
Aren’t good for a little child.”
Attack dogs, truncheons, and rubber hoses were tools police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor’s men routinely employed to disperse demonstrators and break the will of the marchers. The mother, by understating (vastly, almost comically) the obvious in saying that these things aren’t “good for a little child,” foreshadows the irony of what will later befall her child in the assumed safety of the church (the “sacred place”). This imagined conversation captures the precise tone a mother would use in explaining a complicated subject to her child and, hence, allows us, as readers, to identify both with the mother’s concern and the daughter’s desire. This identification on the part of the reader with the characters gives the poem the kind of emotional punch Randall intended, as we are all the more shocked when we discover the little girl has been killed in a bomb blast at her church. Rather than telling us directly that the girl has been killed, Randall lets us infer from the final image what occurred.
Randall initially published “Ballad of Birmingham” a few years after the bombing as a broadside ballad. Broadside ballads deal with current events and tell stories that are often polemical or didactic in nature; they take a position and have an explicit point to make. “Ballad of Birmingham” remains a successful example of such a ballad, because it fuses the universal and the particular, and it takes a stand against racial injustice—a stand as valid today as it was more than thirty years ago when it was written.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Barksdale, Richard, and Kenneth Kinnamon, eds., Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Breman, Paul, “Poetry into the Sixties,” in The Black American Writer, Vol. II, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1969, pp. 99-109.
Cobbs, Elizabeth H., and Petric J. Smith, Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World, Birmingham, AL: Crane Hill, 1994.
Garrow, David J., ed., Birmingham, Alabama, 1956-1963: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights, Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1989.
Melhem, D. H., “Dudley Randall: A Humanist View,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter 1983, pp. 157-67.
Miller, R. Baxter, “‘Endowing the World and Time’: The Life and Work of Dudley Randall,” in Black American Poetsbetween Worlds, 1940-1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 77-92.
Moore, Lenard D., “For Dudley Randall,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall 1987, p. 242.
Mootry, Maria K., “‘Chocolate Mabbie’ and ‘Pearl May Lee’: Gwendolyn Brooks and the Ballad Tradition,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3, March 1987, pp. 278-93.
The New York Times, September 16, 1963; September 17, 1963.
Randall, Dudley, ed., The Black Poets, New York: Bantam, 1971, 1998.
Riley, C., ed., Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. I, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1973, p. 283.
Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, New York: Penguin, 1987.
Cobbs, Elizabeth H., and Petric J. Smith, Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World, Birmingham, AL: Crane Hill, 1994.
This is a firsthand account of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church written by the state’s witness and niece of the convicted bomber, Robert Chambliss.
King, Woodie, Jr., ed., The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1975.
King’s collection includes selections of poetry and personal statements from a range of poets from the 1960s and 1970s, including Dudley Randall who also wrote the collection’s preface. Many of the writers included here published their work with Broadside Press.
Randall, Dudley, Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known, Detroit, MI: Broadside Press, 1975.
Randall includes both poetry and nonfiction in this collection celebrating the writers and history of Randall’s Broadside Press.
Thompson, Julius, Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995, New York: McFarland, 1998.
This is the most recent critical study of Randall’s and Broadside Press’s influence on the African-American literary scene in Detroit.
Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, New York: Penguin, 1987.
In this companion volume to the PBS television series of the same name, Williams clearly and vividly recounts the history of the civil rights movement in America. As well as being a very readable, straightforward historical account, this book is full of photographs, in-depth interviews with individual members of the movement, and reprints of important texts, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.