Vox Populi: “Ballad of Birmingham” is a poem by Dudley Randall that he published as a broadside in 1965. It was written in response to the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The poem was set to music by folk singer Jerry Moore in 1967 after he read it in the newspaper and is featured on his album Life is a Constant Journey Home.
In the poem, an African-American mother and her daughter converse about a Freedom March in the streets of Birmingham. The child asks permission to participate in the march, but her mother objects and describes the dangers of participating in a demonstration. Instead, the girl is sent to church — which is perceived to be a place of safety. After the daughter leaves for church, an explosion is heard:
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?”
The Birmingham church bombing occurred on September 15, 1963, when a bomb exploded before Sunday morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—a church with a predominantly black congregation that also served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. Four young girls were killed and many other people injured. Outrage over the incident and the violent clash between protesters and police that followed helped draw national attention to the hard-fought, often dangerous struggle for civil rights for African Americans.
The city of Birmingham, Alabama, was founded in 1871 and rapidly became the state’s most important industrial and commercial center. As late as the 1960s, however, it was also one of America’s most racially discriminatory and segregated cities. Alabama Governor George Wallace was a leading foe of desegregation, and Birmingham had one of the strongest and most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The city’s police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was notorious for his willingness to use brutality in combating radical demonstrators, union members and blacks.
By 1963, homemade bombs set off in Birmingham’s black homes and churches were such common occurrences that the city had earned the nickname “Bombingham.” Precisely because of its reputation as a stronghold for white supremacy, civil rights activists made Birmingham a major focus of their efforts to desegregate the Deep South. In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham while leading supporters of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in a nonviolent campaign of demonstrations against segregation. While in jail, King wrote a letter to local white ministers justifying his decision not to call off the demonstrations in the face of continued bloodshed at the hands of local law enforcement officials. His famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was published in the national press, along with shocking images of police brutality against protesters in Birmingham that helped build widespread support for the civil rights cause >>>