Alabama, in truth, seems anything but a stinging rebuke to the great Southern state. There’s a certain condesencion, certainly, but the song is softer both musically and lyrically than Young’s earlier angry outburst Southern Man, from the album After the Gold Rush. True, there are the references to ‘old folks tied in white robes’ but it’s far from incendiary. So the Skynyrd / Young shootout is a damp squib from the start, a diversion from the real guts of the song.
In Birmingham they love the Governor (Boo Boo Boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth
And here lies the real controversy. What were they thinking, bringing up Wallace in ’73, in response to Neil Young’s accusation of racism and bigotry? In a song that lauds and identifies with the people (and it’s for you to decide whether that’s the white people, or all the people) of Alabama, it’s problematic – to say the least – to start with ‘In Birmingham they love the Governor’; at this point in the song we’ve been carried into the bosom of Van Zant’s Alabama kin, so are they the same kin that love the Governor? The most ambiguous syllables in rock history, that chime in immediately afterwards, do little to clarify things. They could, as Skynyrd intimated in various interviews later, be a kind of boo-ing at the villain of the piece, but equally plausible is that they are there to mock Northern Liberals who have a problem with Wallace. Sure, the next lines fit in well with the first reading, suggesting that while the South has politicians to be ashamed of, the North doesn’t have it better with ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon.
But if the band were having a dig at Wallace, the good ole governor didn’t notice it, declaring the band honorary lieutenant colonels in the Alabama State Militia in 1975. Van Zant would later describe that as a ‘bullshit gimmicky thing’, but according to Charlie Daniels, in private Van Zant, like the rest of Skynyrd, “had a great respect for George Wallace. Ronnie was a southern man [and when] they got the plaques from the Governor… they were just tickled to death about it”.3
And let’s not forget, that by 1972 we’ve firmly entered the era of dog whistle politics in the United States. Electoral strategist Lee Atwater, in an infamous 1981 interview gave an insight into how racism could be safely expressed in an era where the civil rights struggle had seemingly been won:
“ You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”4
Ambiguity in the era of dog-whistle politics gave Skynyrd the musical equivalent of Nixon’s southern strategy. Sure, all the public expressions regarding the song suggested it was misunderstood, just as they would suggest that the symbolic Confederate Flag backdrop was a marketing gimmick foisted upon them by the record label MCA, but equally anyone wanting to pick up a defiant, white supremacist theme in Sweet Home Alabama could easily sing along.
Was Van Zant a racist? It’s impossible to decide, with the mixed messages and few interviews he left. There are compelling cases for and against. In his defence a number of points are repeatedly stressed, for example the song The Ballad of Curtis Loew, where Van Zant lovingly plays tribute to a local character ‘Old Curt was a black man with white curly hair’ who ‘lived a lifetime Playin’ the black man’s blues’. Van Zant also publicly distanced himself from Governor George Wallace, saying in an oft-quoted interview (in 1975), “George Wallace don’t know any fucking thing about rock ‘n’ roll and I don’t know any fucking thing about politics”. Many Van Zant supporters, though, are less quick to publicise another quote from the same interview: “We respect him because he’s a man of principles. And he does stick to his fucking principles. He’s a tough motherfucker, and we respect him for that. But as far as going out and campaigning for him, I don’t want to go out wearing a bullet-proof vest when I get on stage to sing.”
Complicate matters further, and skip ahead to the outro of the song, where as if to add insult to injury, Van Zant again seemingly sings Wallace’s praises.
Sweet home Alabama, oh sweet home
Where the skies are so blue and the governor’s true
Sweet home Alabama
Lord, I’m coming home to you
If Edward Kennedy was willing to court Wallace in 1975, was it so bad for Van Zant to repeatedly namecheck him in 1973? Did it mean support for segregation and racial supremacy? It’s impossible to go that far. Let’s take another look at the Governor. Wallace, who to this day remains a symbol of of White Southern intolerance. Wallace actually started out as a relatively enlightened public official. He served as a judge in Alablama, and was known for his relatively tolerant treatment of African-Americans in his court. During his first race for the Gubernatorial primaries in 1958 he declared: “I want to tell the good people of this state as a judge of the 3rd Judicial Circuit, if I didn’t have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of his color, then I don’t have what it takes to be the governor of your great state.”6 He lost the race to the KKK endorsed Attorney General John Malcolm Patterson who stood on a pro-segregation, law and order ticket. Famously Wallace complained to his finance director, Seymour Trammel, “I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again.” 7 So Wallace started out as, by the terribly low standards of the time, primarily indifferent to African-American civil rights. He assumed the mantle of strident segregationist for political opportunism.
Opportunism and indifference were, perhaps, the guiding principles when Van Zant and Skynyrd wrote the song. Wallace had worked out that, to get elected in the South, you had to appeal to racism, and he was fine with that. Skynyrd by ’73 had worked out that a very specific type of ‘Southern Identity’ in their music could, not only keep their local fanbase happy, but also catapult them on to a national stage. They may not have been racist in their intent, but who can tell? One thing is for sure, though. They sure as hell weren’t opposing racism in the song.