"The Ballad of Birmingham," by Dudley Randall, recounts the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that took place in the year of heightened civil rights protests. This "Rebellion" had culminated in the March on Washington in August and had been stirred by Martin Luther Kings "I have a dream" speech. The following month, the Birmingham tragedy took the lives of four little girls at Sunday School and injured other children. The attack aroused nationwide grief and indignation. Dudley Randall's lyric describes a mother's reaction to the bombing. Randall focuses upon one child, personalizing both the horror and context.
The girl asks her mother's permission to participate in a freedom march. The mother fearing the police dogs "and clubs and hoses, guns and jails," protectively refuses and, in searing irony, suggests that her child go to Sunday School instead, where she will be safe. Dramatic tension builds as the mother lovingly dresses the child for church and smiles to think of her daughter "in the sacred place." Then she hears the explosion: "her eyes grew wet and wild. She raced through the streets of Birmingham calling for her child." The murder, as if too terrible for description and thus augmented by mystery, powerfully registers in this vignette of maternal anguish. Replete with social and intellectual history, the verses stress nurture and growth. It establishes racial progress as a kind of blossoming, as Randall recounts the incident, based on a historical event.
Eight quatrains portray one girl's life and death. The name of Birmingham, a city then regarded as the "capital" of segregation, becomes a symbol of any city or town in which the oppressed Black is killed out of racial prejudice. Thus, there is no sanctuary in an evil world, Randall seems to say, and one may face horror in the street as well as in the church.