Dudley Randall first published "Ballad of Birmingham" as a broadside in 1965. The poem was written in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which had a predominantly Black congregation and was targeted by white supremacists on September 15, 1963. Four young Black girls were killed in the explosion, and 22 other congregants were injured. This attack was set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the efforts of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to end segregation in the United States and, more specifically, in southern states like Alabama. As the title suggests, the poem is a ballad, meaning that it uses common meter and an ABCB rhyme scheme.
“Mother dear, may ...
... Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, ...
... a little child.”
“But, mother, I ...
... our country free.”
“No, baby, no, ...
... the children’s choir.”
She has combed ...
... on her feet.
The mother smiled ...
... upon her face.
For when she ...
... for her child.
She clawed through ...
... where are you?”
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
"Ballad of Birmingham" Set to Music — Check out musician Jerry Moore's version of the poem.
Randall Reads His Work — Listen to Dudley Randall recite a number of his poems—including"Ballad of Birmingham," which begins at the 6:50 mark—in this recording from the Library of Congress.
The New York Times Celebrates Dudley Randall — Read about Dudley Randall's work and his founding of Broadside Press, which was an important publishing press in the Black Arts Movement.
The Poet's Life — Learn more about Dudley Randall's life and work in this brief overview.
Broadside Lotus Press — Take a look at what Broadside Press—now called Broadside Lotus Press_is doing these days!T he press is the oldest Black-owned press still in existence.
(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
1“Mother dear, may I go downtown
2Instead of out to play,
3And march the streets of Birmingham
4In a Freedom March today?”
5“No, baby, no, you may not go,
6For the dogs are fierce and wild,
7And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
8Aren’t good for a little child.”
9“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
10Other children will go with me,
11And march the streets of Birmingham
12To make our country free.”
13“No, baby, no, you may not go,
14For I fear those guns will fire.
15But you may go to church instead
16And sing in the children’s choir.”
17She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
18And bathed rose petal sweet,
19And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
20And white shoes on her feet.
21The mother smiled to know her child
22Was in the sacred place,
23But that smile was the last smile
24To come upon her face.
25For when she heard the explosion,
26Her eyes grew wet and wild.
27She raced through the streets of Birmingham
28Calling for her child.
29She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
30Then lifted out a shoe.
31“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
32But, baby, where are you?”