The University of Alabama has had a long and storied history. Many aspects, such as football and academic programs, have been positive. But there are many troubling areas in the story of the University. One of the most obvious is the University’s failure to integrate until federal interference forced the issue in the 1960s. But one of the most important influences on the University’s history is “The Machine,” a coalition of twenty-seven all-white fraternities and sororities. Although some question its existence, it has essentially run University politics for nearly a century. Although some may see this as a negative part of the University’s history, it is much more than that on campus. In fact, it could be viewed as a microcosm of the American government system. From its very beginnings as a rogue chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon to today, The Machine has caused controversy.
Although there are rumors that it formed as early as 1888, Theta Nu Epsilon, Alpha-Rho chapter was formally established as an inter-fraternity organization at The University of Alabama in 1902 and officially recognized by the University in 1905. At that time, T.N.E. had sixteen members, all from ΣΑΕ, ΦΔΘ, ΑΤΩ, or ΔΚΕ (“Theta Nu Epsilon Composite, 1905” The Corolla). For the majority of its early existence, T.N.E. did not have any ties to any sort of secretive political machine. In fact, The Crimson White covered its initiation in a 1905 article titled “T.N.E. Dance.” In the article, the author referred to T.N.E.’s members as “some of the most popular men in college” (“T.N.E. Dance”).
On February 14, 1909, a parallel organization was formed at the University called “The Skulls”. Unlike T.N.E., whose membership was comprised of sophomores, The Skulls was a senior class society (thetanuepsilon.org). However, like T.N.E., The Skulls was public with its operations. In both 1912 and 1913, The Crimson White wrote articles detailing whom the fraternity was initiating. Despite the membership differences between The Skulls and the T.N.E. national organization, they remained formally associated. There is no evidence that would connect this organization’s activities with those of The Machine until March 18, 1913. On that day, The Crimson White published an article detailing the initiation rituals of The Skulls. These rituals included a public parade (or “Pee-Rade” as it was referred to) that was meant to humiliate the new members. The new members disguised themselves as female “negroes” and paraded down the streets of Tuscaloosa in pajamas and brightly colored clothes. There were other parts of the ritual that were meant to degrade African-Americans (“The Skulls Initiate and Provide Much Fun for a Brilliant Audience”). This type of activity reflected the culture of the day and lives on the modern day Machine’s mantra as a coalition of fraternities and sororities whose membership is white-only.
In 1914, as The Skulls became less and less like the T.N.E. national organization, The Skulls were told that they were no longer welcome as T.N.E. national members. This caused a massive confusion amongst the members of The Skulls. In the pandemonium, J. Lister Hill, a member of ΔΚΕ, took control of the fraternity and reorganized it into an organization that would control campus politics (“The Skulls Composite, 1913” The Corolla). Using his new creation, he was able to make himself the first Student Government Association president at The University of Alabama (thetanuepsilon.org). After graduation, Hill pursued a career in politics, becoming a six term Democratic U.S. Senator for the state of Alabama (bioguide.congress.gov).
Although Hill was the first SGA President, fraternity men had held many leadership positions on campus since the early 1890’s. By 1914, over ninety-three percent of leading offices in student organizations were held by men in fraternities. Many people in the non-Greek community were troubled by this reality. In a 1913 attempt to correct this, Phi Gamma Delta’s traveling secretary (referred to only as “Mr. Chambers”) suggested that these non-fraternity men form fraternities of their own (“Non-Fraternity and Frat Men Hold Joint Meeting and Discuss Live Issues”). Although there is no concrete evidence of this, it is fair to assume that this is where the division between Machine and non-Machine fraternities began. As the new fraternities were established, the Machine fraternities became more traditional while non-Machine fraternities appealed to a more varied group of people. This distinction may not be the case today, however, during the early days of The Machine, it likely held true.
The Skulls operated under the format that Hill set up in 1914 until 1922, when they disappeared from public view. This disappearance was short-lived. After the 1927 SGA elections, serious accusations about “a political machine” surfaced. Although there were always whispers about fraternity men running organizations on campus, formal allegations against the SGA were never made. An open letter from William J. Cabaniss (a chair of a committee working to expose The Machine) to the University student body was posted on the front page of The Crimson White on March 29, 1928. In the letter he states, “We desire to call your attention to a situation which we regard as a serious menace… to the social and academic life of the University… there exists or has existed a secret national political fraternity on the campus” (Cabaniss 1,8). This letter was written just before the 1928 SGA elections and was directed at Machine-backed SGA president Albert Boutwell (welcometothemachine.info). Boutwell responded to the letter with a letter of his own, posted in the same article. Although he admitted to being a member of T.N.E., he denied any “oath to support each candidate”. He also attacked Cabaniss, who was a political rival of his: “he tries to justify his defeat by belittling the one who defeated him… it is best that that man [Cabaniss] was defeated” (Boutwell 1,8). Despite the seriousness of these letters, there was not another article written about T.N.E., The Skulls, or The Machine in The Crimson White until the 1940s. Boutwell went on to become powerful in Alabama state politics.
Cabaniss may have had a good point. Up until that time, every SGA President had been Machine-backed. Since that time, less than seven percent of the SGA Presidents have won the vote without Machine backing (welcometothemachine.info). The impact of this statistic becomes even more evident considering only about fourteen percent of all students at The University of Alabama are actives in Machine fraternities and sororities as of Spring, 2012 (greekaffairs.ua.edu) (ua.edu).
During the middle of the twentieth century, anti-Machine sentiment began to grow. This sentiment was strongly represented in the offices of The Crimson White. In recent years, The CW has had a reputation of being anti-Greek. This bias can be noted as early as 1949 in an article written just before SGA election season. Although the entire article focuses on the negative aspects of The Machine, the writer’s true thoughts are best stated in the last two sentences: “Certainly no organization is more interested in improving student government than this newspaper. For that reason, The Crimson-White, carrying out its “preview” promises, will next week carry its plan for an open and above-board two party system on the campus” (“The Machine and Its Cranks”).
A “two party system” would probably be fairer than a one party system. However, would it really be better? After all, arguably the most peaceful and prosperous time in American history was “The Era of Good Feelings;” a period of time where there was only one prominent political party, the Democratic-Republicans. For over twenty years, this party controlled all branches of the federal government and there was little opposition from the general public. International incidents were few, and for the most part, only involved Native Americans (ushistory.org). Groups such as African-Americans and women did experience cultural prejudice, but for the most part, their oppression did not result from the rule of the Democratic-Republicans. Rather, it was a result of cultural traditions and unfair laws and regulations laid down by founding fathers in a bipartisan manner. Although Machine politics are on a much smaller scale, the principle of peace in a “one party system” cannot be overlooked.
Anti-Machine sentiment continued to grow during the 1960s. The Machine became known as a thirty-member organization that was the “puppet master” of over 7,000 students. The “puppet master” idea was reflected in a political cartoon published in The Crimson White in March of 1961. The cartoon depicts an evil-looking puppet master controlling the motions of students on campus (“Group of 30”). During the 1960s, two non-Machine backed SGA presidents were elected to office.
Even though the decade with the least Machine domination was the 1960s, The Machine’s greatest defeat came in 1976 with the election of Cleo Thomas to the office of SGA President. Not only was Thomas not Machine-backed, but he was African-American. Thomas was able to rally African-American students, non-Greek students, and, most importantly, the mass majority of sorority girls on campus to vote for him as a vote to take down The Machine. Many sorority girls from both Machine and non-Machine sororities wanted to have more influence regarding which candidates The Machine backed in elections. To date, Thomas is the only African-American SGA President. Although Thomas was more than qualified for the position (he studied at Oxford and Harvard Law School after graduating from Alabama), his election enraged many members of the Greek community. The long-term effect is that Machine sorority representatives have a greater influence regarding which candidate The Machine will back (tuscaloosanews.com).
When the election results were announced, a group of 15 students emerged from the Kappa Sigma house wearing white cloaks and hoods (similar to gear worn by the Ku Klux Klan). After walking down University Avenue singing “We Shall Overcome,” the group, comprised of members of Kappa Sigma and Lambda Chi Alpha, walked to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house and burned an eight-foot cross on their front lawn, another ritual synonymous with the KKK. Although no concrete evidence was ever presented to support rumors that The Machine was directly behind these terroristic demonstrations, the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. African-American Association President Sylvester Wilson was clear in who he thought was behind the acts: “I’m sure that what happened involves Cleo [Thomas]… The Machine is upset” (Whiting).
There is no excuse for the actions of these fraternity men. In fact, many of the operations of The Machine during the heart of the twentieth century were shady at best. But from a political perspective, the workings of The Machine can be seen as a microcosm of American politics.
Up until the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, no African-American had ever held the position of Commander in Chief. From its creation in 1914 until 1976, no African-American was elected president of the SGA. In the current system in place in the U.S., a small group of people (the highest ranking Democrats and Republicans) selects a small, exclusive handful of candidates that have a chance at winning the Presidency out of a potential candidate pool of hundreds of millions of people. This is very similar to The Machine: a group of about 30 individuals select one person out of a pool of a few thousand eligible people that will likely become the SGA President.
The most glaring similarity between The Machine and the U.S. political system is the number of U.S. Presidents that were members of Fraternities. All of the U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents (except for two in each office) that were born after the first social fraternity was founded (1825) were members of fraternities (indiana.edu). What makes this fact even more astounding is that only approximately two percent of the general population of the U.S. is fraternity men (fit.edu). This is similar to the statistic of the ninety-three percent of Alabama SGA Presidents that were Machine-backed. Although it may not always be totally fair, America’s political system has been mostly positive.
For over a decade after the incident with Cleo Thomas, The Machine ran campus politics in a relatively quiet manner. There was occasional opposition from The Crimson White amongst other groups, but no monumental issues. Knowledge about The Machine was still confined to Alabama and was not a national issue. That changed in April 1992.
In that month’s issue of Esquire magazine, Phillip Weiss wrote an article detailing Greek life at Alabama; and in particular, The Machine fraternities and sororities. Weiss also focused on the racism involved in the social fraternities and sororities (they were segregated until Lambda Sigma Phi initiated an African-American in 2000). One incident that he sited involved two Kappa Delta (sorority) pledges who went to a costume party dressed as pregnant African-American women. A photo of the two girls was leaked and there was a tremendous outcry from the African-American community. Chad Green, a Delta Tau Delta brother, was upset, but not that the incident had happened. He was angry that the issue became public: “it went public and everything got blown out of proportion.” During his interview with Weiss, Green was asked about The Machine, to which he responded, “I’d rather not comment on that… I just won’t comment.” Green was widely believed to be Delta’s representative for The Machine.
The Machine at this point held eighty percent of Senate seats in the SGA. Weiss illustrated this domination when he wrote about an SGA meeting he was invited to observe. A group of non-Greeks submitted a bill to create a Fantasy Games Club. The club had an unlikely chance of getting chartered from the start. Its chances dwindled to none when the senators read the anti-Greek jokes in the club’s literature. One example was, “Do not molest the sorority girls. They have sharp nails.” This spawned an onslaught of hatred from the senators towards the non-Greeks who proposed it.
One of the main focuses of Weiss’s article was integration. He talked discussed integration with members of Kappa Alpha Order, a historically “old-money,” southerner-only fraternity. Boo Haughton, the president of K.A. at the time, said that though he was not against integration within his fraternity, he “[did not] see it in the next five years.” He went on to detail the specifics of what he would be looking for in a potential African-American member: “Someone who appreciates southern heritage… with the same view I have, that there’s niggers and there’s blacks and there’s rednecks and white people.” Mainly, Haughton was against forced integration, which the University had been encouraging. He said that if the University forced integration, “there would be so many hazing violations out of hatred” (Weiss 102-106).
Integration is still a hot topic today. Former University President Guy Bailey said in an October 2012 interview (less than a week after Fall 2012 pledging was cancelled) that he “would like to see the integration of the fraternities and sororities” (Flanagan). A few weeks after making these statements, Bailey stepped down as President, citing his wife’s health. However, the timing of it brought on rumors of Machine involvement. In the comments section of a news post on the blog totalfratmove.com regarding the end of pledging for the fall of 2012, a user wrote, “The Machine lives forever, there will be [repercussions]” (totalfratmove.com).
The Machine faced even more scrutiny because of an incident during the 1993 SGA elections. Minda Riley, a sister of Phi Mu, was running for SGA president without Machine support. Normally, The Machine would not have noticed her. But because she was a member of a Machine sorority, they interpreted her run for president as an act of insubordination. When she returned to the University after Thanksgiving break in 1992, she found an “X” burned into her lawn with threatening notes written on her door. All of the notes had a central message: do not run against The Machine. Despite the threats, she ran anyways (Yardley). On the night of January 31, 1993, a masked man in Riley’s apartment assaulted her. While beating and cutting her, the assailant yelled, “You fuck with the wrong people, you get fucked.” Ironically, Riley’s brother was the Machine-backed SGA president during his time at the University. Riley’s opponent, Neil Duthie, said, “It’s really horrible it happened,” but maintained that neither he nor The Machine was involved, despite the overwhelming evidence (Travis).
The growing negative publicity and the Riley assault led to the shutdown of the SGA. The reaction across the student body was mixed, mostly with non-Greeks in favor of the shutdown and Greeks against it. Angela Washington, a non-Greek, said “It’s probably the best thing right now.” The president of the SGA at the time of the shutdown, Mark Bain, was much more negative and highly doubted the future of student government at Alabama: “Without a doubt we are the last of what we know as the Student Government Association” (Stoker).
Bain’s prediction regarding the future of the SGA was wrong. In 1996, students adopted a new constitution for the SGA that supposedly eliminated voting blocs. There was still doubt as to whether or not this would work, since The Machine’s influence was so entrenched (Gose). Obviously, The Machine’s power is still a force to recon with as every single SGA president since 1996 has been Machine-backed (welcometothemachine.info).
The incidents in the early 1990s and the Thomas election in 1976 show The Machine at its worst: a terrorist organization. Violence should never be in politics, let alone student government. The shutdown of the SGA was necessary because of Riley’s assault, even if it was not very effective. If it had not been shutdown, it would appear that the University condoned these violent actions.
Since the reinstatement of the SGA, The Machine has been relatively quiet. Although there have been many Crimson White articles about it, it has not been a violent force on campus. However, it still holds control over SGA presidential elections, considering there has not been a non-Machine backed president since 1987. Another example of its presence on today’s campus is block seating at football games. Machine fraternities make up seven of the top ten blocks in the 2012 block seating chart. Although there are less Machine fraternities in top spots than previous years, it is clear that they still dominate the front rows (Brown 1,5).
As is true with every secret political organization, there are dark aspects to The Machine. During these dark times, The Machine transformed from a group of people with a common goal to a group of people only out for themselves. Since the reformation of the SGA in 1996, The Machine has become slightly less powerful than it was in the earlier part of the twentieth century. However, it still holds a great deal of influence over the University leadership, possibly playing a role in President Bailey’s departure from the University. Regardless of whether Lister Hill’s creation is one of good or evil, The Machine’s existence had a huge impact on student life at Alabama.
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