The Machine is an organization students at the University of Alabama accept as a basic fact of life, but which seems like an absurd fantasy once you step off campus. It is a coalition of white fraternities and sororities which controls the student government as well as several student organizations. Its alumni include numerous local political leaders, at least a half dozen members of Congress, and one president of the American Bar Association.
Talking about the Machine outside of Tuscaloosa tends to draw reactions of “Oh, we had the ‘cool kids’ voting bloc too, what’s the big deal?”
In its earliest form, the Machine was a coalition of only white fraternities. It entered into a reluctant alliance with white sororities after the sororities backed black candidate Cleo Thomas for SGA president in 1976. Cleo Thomas remains the only African American to be president of the Alabama student body, and cites being an independent (non-Machine) as a bigger hurdle to the office than being black.
In 1992, Miranda Riley, daughter of then-governor Bob Riley, decided to run for SGA president. She was a member of a Machine-allied sorority, but was not the candidate the Machine had anointed. Running without Machine endorsement was forbidden.
Following a period of harassment, Miranda was attacked in her home by Machine thugs. The incident prompted the university administration to abolish the student government for four years. But, when the SGA was reformed in 1996, the Machine did not miss a beat, and immediately regained its dominance of campus politics.
In 2003, an entire student body election had to be thrown out and redone following wide spread election fraud. For the first time, the University had allowed students to cast ballots online using their name and campus ID. The Machine was accused of collecting student IDs from its members and casting votes for them (they previously bussed members to polls to ensure compliance). Making the controversy particularly embarrassing for the University was the fact that student ID numbers at the time were also the students’ Social Security Numbers.
The parade of mischief goes on. Harassment, intimidation, vandalism, burglaries, wire tapping, cross burnings, business boycotts, and threats of assault and rape. Somewhat worse than the popular kids banding together to put each other on the homecoming committee so that Jessica can make sure the theme matches the dress she already bought.
The Machine isn’t the only strange organization that exists on the Alabama campus. There is also the Mallet Assembly, the University’s oldest honor program, now mostly known for its blue-doored, self-governed dormitory. They haven’t been implicated in any burglaries or assaults, but are somewhat notorious for having launched a vending machine from the roof of a building into a lake using a home-made catapult.
Their alumni include Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, and Virgil “Roman Poet” Griffith, hacker and creator of Wikitracker, a program that monitors Wikipedia articles about corporations for manipulation by that company’s employees. (If you're taking Jonathan Zittrain’s Cyberlaw class, turn to your book's index and look him up.)
Today, Mallet is considered more of a curiosity than a serious organization, overshadowed by the more prestigious Blount Undergraduate Initiative. But, in 1970, nine years after their formation, Mallet candidate Jim Zeigler took on the Machine at the polls, and won. Zeilger is one of only seven candidates since 1915 to win the SGA presidency without Machine support. It was a defeat the Machine would not take lying down.
In the second semester of Zeigler’s administration, the Machine-controlled student legislature brought charges that Zeigler had misappropriated student funds for making long distance phone calls and partying in Las Vegas.
After the student court threw out the case, Zeilger went celebrating with his friends. While he was out, his dorm room was burned and all of his property there destroyed.
While no charges were ever filed as a result of the arson, it is difficult for fingers to point anywhere but at the Machine.
The last organization in this story is one our readers will be familiar with, the American Bar Association. “Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice.”
In the Fall of 1971, Delta Kappa Epsilon man and Machine-backed candidate H. Thomas Wells Jr. won the SGA presidency. DKE was a charter member of the Machine, and the student government was back in the hands of white Greekdom. It would remain there until Cleo Thomas's victory in 1976.
In 2007, with the Machine still going strong, engaging in the usual shenanigans, and the UA Greek system still very much segregated, Wells contributed at least $10,000 to a Delta Kappa Epsilon fundraising effort.
From 2008 to 2009, Wells served as President of the American Bar Association.
Is there any hard evidence that Wells himself was involved in the arson of Zeigler’s dorm room? No. Is there any reason to think the ABA was even aware of the Machine’s existence or its sordid history (and present)? Not really.
Did a recent president of the American Bar Association hold a top leadership position in an openly racist organization that engaged in numerous criminal conspiracies? Yeah, almost certainly.
“The legal profession is where society looks for its leaders. If we don’t match the diversity of our profession with that of our society, society will find its leaders elsewhere. And thus far, we have failed to keep pace.”
-Wells, speaking at the ABA's Presidential Summit on Diversity in the Legal Profession in 2009.
[The Crimson White: Bama Alumni Recall Machine Experiences]
[Esquire: The Most Powerful Fraternity in America]