In Alabama, “Roll Tide!” is a phrase for all seasons.
Love for the University of Alabama’s football powerhouse runs so deep in the southeastern state that the iconic college chant routinely doubles as shorthand for “hello”, “goodbye” and everything in between.
But it may also have forgotten Confederate origins. The history of the phrase, as well as the creation myth behind the Crimson Tide’s nickname, is murky at best.
There’s some circumstantial evidence to suggest that it was adapted from an old sea shanty called “Roll Alabama Roll”. It’s a late 19th-century song – an elegy of sorts – that mourns the sinking of the Alabama, a Confederate raiding ship, by the Union warship Kearsarge. That one-on-one skirmish is the most famous naval battle in Civil War history and is immortalized in a French impressionist Manet painting.
Is it just a coincidence that the university’s fight song “Yea Alabama” calls for “Dixie’s football pride” to send Georgia Tech’s Yellow Jackets “to a watery grave?” Does the “Roll Tide Roll” rallying cry come from “Roll Alabama Roll?”
Yes, according to the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They’re the century-old nonprofit group responsible for funding the construction of hundreds of Confederate memorials all over the south. “Roll Alabama Roll” definitely inspired “Roll Tide”, says Joe Ringhoffer, a former commander of the Semmes Camp 11 of the SCV.
University of Alabama history professor John Beeler says he isn’t aware of a direct correlation, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.
At a time when Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a scrubbing or contextualizing of campuses’ Confederate iconography, many universities south of the Mason-Dixon line are now grappling with school traditions more subtle than larger-than-life Robert E Lee statues or “stars-and-bars” rebel flags.
Two generations ago, Confederate battle flags flew free in the stands of Southeastern Conference games and marching bands proudly played “Dixie” – the Confederacy’s unofficial anthem. That’s no longer the case. But universities are now discovering that even seemingly innocuous fight songs and fan-friendly chants aren’t safe from their problematic histories.
In June, the University of Florida banned its “Gator Bait” cheer at home games. Historians say black children were used as bait to lure alligators in the 19th century, and the term “alligator bait” was also used as a racial slur. Some Florida tourist spots even sold postcards depicting African-Americans being attacked by alligators.
UF school president Kent Fuchs explained the ban by noting the “horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase”.
Some Gator fans have protested the decision to discontinue the tradition, saying that there’s nothing racist about the chant. In the GOP primary earlier this year, Judson Sapp, a Florida Republican who lost a 10-way race to replace representative Ted Yoho, even campaigned on rescuing Gator Bait.
The University of Texas also made headlines this fall after the Longhorn marching band opted not to play its fight song “The Eyes of Texas'’ at a game against Baylor. The decision came months after Texas athletes marched along with football coach Tom Herman from the campus to the state’s capitol building in Austin in the days following the killing of George Floyd. A group of student protesters called on UT to drop the song because of its “racist overtones”. The tune – sung to the sounds of “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” – was originally performed at minstrel shows by white performers in blackface and was inspired by a quote from Confederate general Robert E Lee.
The school tweaked its rules to find a middle ground between activist students and older alum and donors, ruling that players had to stand during performances of “The Eyes of Texas” but were no longer forced to sing it. But it didn’t work. After a four-overtime loss to Oklahoma in October, only Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger remained on the field during the song.
Richard Reddick, UT’s associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach, is currently leading a committee tasked with figuring out how to keep the school’s 117-year-old song “but with a more complete accounting and acknowledgment of its past”.
It won’t be easy.
Reckoning with history has been especially messy for Southern college football programs due to its symbolic role in the former slave states since Reconstruction. The scions of the planter class embraced the game as a way to reassert the Old South’s proclaimed values of masculinity and chivalry.
As a result, many Southern college football programs selected uniforms, nicknames and rituals that evoked Confederate militarism. For instance, Louisiana State University chose the nickname “Fighting Tigers'’ in dedication towards a rebel Civil War regiment known as the Louisiana Tigers. Auburn used to wave ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ during games and the University of Virginia initially chose silver grey and cardinal red as their team colors “to represent the glory of the Confederacy, dyed in the blood of the fallen”.
As the sport grew in popularity, and cross-regional matchups between segregated southern and integrated northern schools played, bowl games became perceived as proxy battles for the Civil War.
The University of Alabama’s 1926 Rose Bowl victory over the University of Washington was treated as a win for the Old South as a whole. “We were the South’s baby. We felt like the Rose Bowl was more than just another football game,” said Hoyt Winslett, Alabama’s first All-American, after the game. That championship inspired “Yea Alabama”, the school’s new fight song, and lyrics such as “Hit your stride, you’re Dixie’s Football Pride”, that hint at the team’s greater symbolic significance.
Following Alabama’s tie with Stanford in the Rose Bowl the following year, university president George Denny said: “I come back with my head held a little higher and my soul a little more inspired to win this battle for the splendid Anglo-Saxon race of the South.”
Confederate symbols at college football games hit a new inflection point during the mid-20th century in protest of integration policies – especially after the landmark Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision. For instance, in the 1962 Gator Bowl against Penn State, Florida’s coach ordered a Confederate battle flag patch placed on the team uniforms and replaced the Gators’ traditional numbers on the helmets with the rebel flag.
A year later, Alabama governor George Wallace notoriously threw himself in a doorway to protest University of Alabama’s first Black students’ enrollment. In 1967, his wife, Governor Lurleen Wallace, issued an executive order for the University of Alabama to play “Dixie” and to display the Confederate flag at all home football games.
“It wasn’t accidental; it was southern institutions saying, ‘We oppose the Civil Rights Movement. Let’s reify this white past and show these Confederate artifacts as objects of devotion,’” says Timothy Lombardo, an assistant history professor at the University of South Alabama.
Change has been slow and steady for much of the past 50 years. The Crimson Tide first desegregated in 1970. The NCAA and the SEC have banned Confederate battle flags and the playing of “Dixie” from football stadiums. Overt symbols like Colonel Reb, the goateed caricature of an old, white plantation owner that danced on the sidelines of Ole Miss games earlier this century, is gone as well.
Now in 2020, with statues falling left and right, it’s the more granular symbols getting attention.
“For so long, these things were lost in the background but I think what’s happened is that they have been brought to the foreground of our consciousness,” says Connor Towne O’Neill, an English teacher at Auburn and the author of That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy
It’s not inconceivable then that the Crimson Tide’s seemingly 94-year-old fight song and omnipresent “Roll Tide” will make the list in the near future.