What Is the Theme of the Poem "Ballad of Birmingham"?

Theme in a poem is the central idea or message. Dudley Randall’s poem “Ballad of Birmingham” is a tribute to a real-life church bombing in 1963, which killed four young girls. The main theme is that nothing -- not even a mother’s love or the sacred walls of a church -- can protect an innocent child from racial violence.

Irony and Theme

Irony is important to the theme. The poem begins as an unnamed girl begs her mother to allow her to attend the Freedom March: “Mother dear, may I go downtown/Instead of out to play,/And march the streets of Birmingham/In a Freedom March today?” The mother refuses, instead urging the girl to go to the church because she believes it is safe, while the march could become dangerous. The irony is that the girl goes to the "safe" church but is still a victim of violence.

Symbolism and Theme

Symbolism is also central to the theme. For example, the girl’s innocence is symbolized by her white gloves and white shoes. The mother finds one of the shoes sitting in the rubble after the explosion, and it is now a symbol of her child’s innocence taken away by a horrific event. Thus, the poem further emphasizes the mother’s inability to protect her child.