sweet home alabama racist legacy

In Defense of Sweet Home Alabama—Why Its Racist Legacy Is Not Deserved

Think Bruce Springsteen and Born in the USA

Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1974 “revenge song" Sweet Home Alabama, is perceived by many to be a put down of Neil Young and his lily-livered anti-racist liberalism —and has become the theme tune for many an uber conservative, not to mention a slew of neo-Nazi white supremacist groups.

However, in actuality, Sweet Home Alabama is anything BUT a love song for bigotry and hatred—in fact, its racist legacy is undeserved, and those who champion it as a good old boys' segregation supporting anthem are sorely misinformed.

For many of us, there are two images that spring to mind when this song starts playing.

The first is Nicolas Cage being a total badass while Steve Buscemi creeps us out with his crazy bug eyes and “ironic" statements (Con Air anyone?). The second is a bunch of rednecks a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' as they gather to plan their next Klan meet.

But, hey, guess what – both of these scenarios miss the mark.

So, why has Sweet Home Alabama become the big, old, white-hooded, cross burning racist elephant in the room?

Well, mainly because people DON'T ACTUALLY LISTEN….and don't take note of nuances…as proved by all those jingoistic Hell Yeah America! folks who have ambushed Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA as their nationalistic anthem of choice —they just pick and choose what to process— and run with what suits them, and their belief system, best.


In defense of Sweet Home Alabama point one:

The lyrics:

In Birmingham they love the gov'nor
Now we all did what we could do

For those who are unaware, Birmingham is the Alabama city at the center of the African American civil rights struggle back in the 50s and 60s—and was the target of a white supremacist group's bombing of a Baptist church in 1964 that killed four young African American girls.

The gov'nor referenced is George Wallace, the 45th Governor of Alabama who was a Southern populist and segregationist.

On the face of it, that verse seems pretty clear cut, yeah?

It's pro-segregation and therefore racist, right?

Well, the true meaning of the verse has been hotly debated, bickered over, volleyed about, and scrupulously dissected over the years.

When you listen to the verse though, after the first line, the band sing, "Boo, boo, boo!" And, that's something that's been honed in on by people on both sides of the argument as evidence to help prove their point.

Some take it as a wink at racism by Skynyrd—claiming they're mocking the anti-Wallace protesters.

On the other side though, folks argue it's evidence the band was actually mocking the Wallace supporters.

So, who the hell is right?!!!

Well, how about we listen to what the people who actually wrote and performed the song have to say?

Ronnie Van Zant and Al Kooper set the record straight way back in 1975—not that anyone seems to have paid any attention to their comments.

“We tried to get Wallace out of there is how I always thought of it," Kooper said.

"The lyrics about the governor of Alabama were misunderstood," Van Zant said. “The general public didn't notice the words 'Boo! Boo! Boo!' after that particular line, and the media picked up only on the reference to the people loving the governor. The line 'We all did what we could do' is sort of ambiguous.

"Wallace and I have very little in common. I don't like what he says about colored people." Adding, “We're not into politics, we don't have no education, and Wallace don't know anything about rock and roll."

In defense of Sweet Home Alabama point two:

The lyrics:

Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth

Some take that as an attack on the liberals who were so outraged by Republican President Richard Nixon's actions.

More credible though, is the argument the band was actually trying to make the point that they, as Southerners, don't judge everyone in the North for the Nixon administration failings.

So therefore, Northerners shouldn't judge everyone in the South for the failings of the Wallace administration…people who live in glass houses and all that…

In defense of Sweet Home Alabama point three:

The final line:

Yea, yea Montgomery's got the answer

For those who don't know—Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, is credited with being the catalyst for the American civil rights movement—its where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of a bus in 1955, and the city was a staunch enforcer of the Jim Crow racial segregation laws.

Some take the line as the band's clear support for the laws and the racial caste system they maintained.

Others however, see it as as a nod to the civil rights movement, specifically the infamous march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King.

In defense of Sweet Home Alabama point four:

The confederate flag:

The fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd was known to play with a confederate flag in the background has only added fuel to the “they must be racist" fire.

But, much like how the American flag emblazoned all over Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA cover helped wrongly convince people the song was a patriotic anthem—when in actuality it was a scathing takedown of the American government over how they mistreated Vietnam veterans—it seems Lynyrd Skynyrd also did not stand firmly for the values a flag is supposed to convey.

Now, there's no doubting the band was proud to be southern, and that the musicians frequently played up to their “good old boys" image—however, as Van Zant confessed in 1975, the whole confederate flag thing was solely down to their record company, not their own, personal, choice.

“That was strictly an MCA gimmick to start us off with some label. It was useful at first, but by now it's embarrassing except in

Europe, where they really like all that stuff because they think it's macho American," he said, going on to claim that initially it was

bearable to be perceived as rednecks, but a whole different matter to subsequently be categorized as racists.

In defense of Sweet Home Alabama point five:

The whole Neil Young feud thing:

There's absolutely zero doubt Sweet Home Alabama was a revenge song—a rebuttal to Neil Young's Southern Man. The band was vocal about the origins of, and motivation for, the track.

However, once again, nuance is the key—as journalist Ross Warner wrote in Glide magazine, "When Skynyrd criticized Neil Young's Southern Man, it was for the sweeping generalization of all southerners as rednecks. Don't condemn southerners now for what their ancestors did."

Van Zant backed up that sentiment, explaining, “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two. We're southern rebels, but more than that, we know the difference between right and wrong."

Even Young himself claimed his lyrical takedown of the South was somewhat heavy handed.

"I don't like my words when I listen to [Southern Man]. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue," he wrote in his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace.

But, let's leave the final say to Van Zant—who is tragically unable to comment any further on the controversy, as he died in a plane crash on October 20th, 1977.

“We wrote Alabama as a joke. We didn't even think about it – the words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell, and said Ain't that funny' … We love Neil Young, we love his music…"

What do you think about Sweet home Alabama?

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