“Ballad of Birmingham” is a famous poem about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 in which four girls were killed. Of all the lessons I present in connection with the Civil Rights movement, this is the most emotional and memorable.
I recommend the book Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle. A double-page spread shows pictures of the girls and explains about the bombing. This book was developed as part of the “Teaching Tolerance” program at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
You can use materials from BalladofBirmingham.org to teach your students about the poem. You will learn the story of the bombing, the story of the poem, and the story of the song. I recommend that you read the poem with your students. The song should be a separate experience, but it is one worth sharing.
Here is a video with the song and news footage. I recommend that you view it yourself and decide if it is appropriate for your students.
You can also see a clip about the church bombing from the History Channel. This explains the context of the bombing in a powerful, visual and concise way. Again, view it yourself and decide if this is appropriate for your students.
**I discovered the poem “Ballad of Birmingham” as a child, when I won a Dr. Martin Luther King Day essay contest at the US Navy base in Naples, Italy. There was a ceremony in honor of Dr. King. I read my essay, but by far the most memorable part of the day was when my friend Keisha’s mom recited “Ballad of Birmingham.” She ended by singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” This powerful performance is one of my most cherished memories.