A Shifting Tide?
At the University of Alabama, unlike many other colleges, student government is serious business. In Alabama, holding office on campus is a stepping stone to state or even national political power. But in 2013, a story in the campus newspaper about racial discrimination set off a wave of change. Students of all races and affiliations began taking a fresh look at the campus’ racial status quo — and elected a young African-American man, Elliot Spillers, to serve as this year’s student government president. But the question remains, on a campus plagued by racial divides since George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door in 1963, will the change stick? Reporter Asher Elbein has followed the story since he was a UA student.
Here’s how it started: On the dewy morning of September 18, 2013, a group of 500 people gathered on the wet quad of the University of Alabama to protest segregation in the campus Greek system.
At first the crowd was silent. It milled before the broad stone steps of Gorgas Library, on cold cobbles and wet grass, a mixture drawn from all corners of the university and surrounding town: organizers with yellow bandannas around their arms, casually dressed faculty, yawning journalists from the national media, Tuscaloosa residents with their children. Students came too; grads and undergrads, Greek students and independent students alike, more students than anybody had expected to show. One of them was a lanky, politically active sophomore named Elliot Spillers. I was another, a senior and occasional columnist for Alabama’s student newspaper, the Crimson White. All of us had been lured by the chance to change the campus.
The inciting incident had come one week earlier, when the Crimson White published an expose that proved what had long been an open secret: that Alabama’s Panhellenic sororities systematically blocked the recruitment of black women. Sorority sources quoted in the article laid the blame at the feet of the chapter alumnae, whom they claimed were instrumental in blocking bids to minority pledges. Many students outside of the Greek system attributed the blame to the culture within the houses instead. No matter where the fault lay, the story itself provided a spark to a long brewing powder keg of resentment, fueled by the the university’s history of racial tension and student government corruption.
As the days after the story’s publication passed without comment from the administration, and the uproar built on campus, a coalition of progressive students calling itself UA Stands formed in secret with the intention of putting together a surprise protest. It would be a mass rally of the kind rarely seen at the University of Alabama: a genuine bit of organized activism at a school riddled with apathy. They reached out to activists, to counter culture kids, to disaffected members of segregated sororities and fraternities. One of the organizers, a fellow senior named Ross Green, invited me to participate due to my connections with the Mallet Assembly, a residential organization with a history of advocating for social integration. Bring in everyone you know and trust, he told me. Let’s get as many people there as possible.
And so the crowd swelled. Flags snapped in the gentle breeze. At the top of the library steps, a coterie of blue-shirted Mallet students held a banner proclaiming THE FINAL STAND IN THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR, an ironic twist on Gov. George Wallace’s infamous 1963 attempt to bar black students from attending the University of Alabama. An organizer wearing a yellow bandanna around his arm barked a short speech into a microphone. Cameras flashed. And then we began to march, hundreds of people moving down the twisting sidewalks, across the glistening quad, under hazy sunbeams and broad oak canopies, a wave washing across University Boulevard and cresting on the steps of the Rose Administration Building.
The original plan the organizers outlined involved a silent sit-in around the administration building, complete with a day’s worth of speeches. But that morning, we learned that that the agenda had changed: Now only two students were slated to speak, and they would stand alongside UA President Judy Bonner as they did so. We gathered on the steps, watching as the first speaker — Yardena Wolf, a sorority woman who’d protested the segregation — appeared in a clearing at the top of the steps with Bonner at her side. Ripples of distaste ran through the crowd at Bonner’s appearance: The president was not popular on campus, and many students had concluded she was responsible for the administration’s silence in response to the allegations. Whispers spread across the mass of demonstrators.
Next up was Khortlan Patterson, a 19-year-old from Houston and a leader in the black student community. “I was mostly speaking from my perspective and just talking about how atrocious it was that something like this was happening in 2013,” Patterson recalled to Mosaic, the UA Honors College magazine, this January. “Fifty years after we integrated this school, and we still haven’t integrated it as much as we would have liked, or probably hoped to.”
Her speech was short, concise and lost to the margins of the crowd, who craned their heads to listen. Then, abruptly, it was over. Patterson stepped back into the mass of demonstrators. Bonner vanished back into Rose Administration Building. People lingered for a while, held by the inertia of the crowd and the fading buzz of excitement. A charged, uncertain atmosphere hung over everything. A few stayed to speak to reporters. Others clustered in small groups, talking in angry, hushed voices, worrying that the university had somehow managed to turn the whole thing into a publicity stunt. Spillers lingered a while, shaking hands, looking thoughtful. After a while, the protest fog parted, and the crowd, Spillers included, drifted away.
Going to class afterward felt strange, Patterson told me in a later interview — like something monumental had happened, like something had shifted somewhere, but she didn’t know what. I had the same sensation, walking away into the cold morning. That feeling spread across campus in the days afterward, leaping from person to person, circling endlessly in rumors and conversations and arguments. It lay at the root of debates about the effectiveness of the protest, whether it had been sufficiently representative of the student body, whether it should have occurred at all. Something had happened, but nobody quite knew what. And nobody — not me, not Patterson, not even Spillers — knew what was coming next.
The University of Alabama’s struggles with racial division have been in the news constantly since 2013, and some stories have reached the national stage. Stories of old-school cutthroat politics in a place where a term in the Student Government Association can propel a person into state or even national political power. Stories of how the sororities were integrated and the second black SGA president in 40 years took office, and of how neither of those triumphs was as sweet as expected.
But the entire story of the last year and a half raises a much more complicated question: At a time when questions of race and power seem inescapable across the country, what does it mean for a Southern school to enter the 21st century?
The University of Alabama cuts a magisterial swath through the heart of Tuscaloosa, over 1,000 acres of green lawns and neoclassical buildings split in two by the linear expanse of University Boulevard. The monolithic bulk of Bryant-Denny Stadium dominates the skyline. On sunny days, flocks of students stretch out along the quad, toss Frisbees or study in the shade of massive oaks. Columns of sorority girls in oversized T-shirts troop like ants across the streets. Suit-jacketed fraternity pledges hustle across the grass, skirting wandering packs of gawking high schoolers led by brisk student ambassadors. Bohemians rub shoulders with preppy kids; everybody rubs shoulders with people in Crimson Tide shirts. To a visitor’s eyes, Alabama is the picture of a modern, growing Southern school. Yet beneath the surface is an institution in flux, divided by long-simmering tensions and rocked by a never-ending series of scandals, many of which have their roots in the Student Government Association.
Student government is serious business at Alabama, arguably more serious than at any similar Southern university. Since the founding of the SGA in 1915, at least 13 SGA presidents have gone on to higher office, occupying positions as diverse as national congressmen, federal judges, state senators and governors. Student government also maintains control of more prosaic campus issues, such as the allocation of block seating for football games and the funding of student groups. That mixture of connections and on-campus political power makes the SGA a valuable prize for anybody who can hold onto it. At UA, that has historically meant members of Greek organizations.
Greek life at Alabama is as omnipresent as football, and nearly as important: According to the university’s records, 32 percent of the student body and 63 separate organizations bear Greek letters. The very geography of the campus reinforces Greek prominence: Sorority Row is located in the shadow of the stadium, the brick houses of New Row surround the athletic fields, and it’s impossible to approach the campus from either direction along University Boulevard without passing the huge fraternity mansions known as Old Row. Greek life entwines through the University’s history too: Several fraternity chapters at Alabama proudly claim traditions that date back to before the Civil War. The sorority rush, meanwhile, is the largest in the country, drawing more than 2,000 young women. When pitted against the general indifference of the larger campus, this vitality and organization has historically allowed the Greek organizations to dominate student politics.
The method of that domination was woven into the historical roots of the student government in 1914, when the SGA’s founder, Joseph Lister Hill, also created a secret society of fraternities to control it. Officially, this organization is known as Theta Nu Epsilon. Popularly, it’s known by the name The Crimson White gave it almost 70 years ago in 1945: the Machine. Over the past century, the Machine has dictated campus politics and shaped administrative policy, surviving every attempt to force it out. In its current form, it is an organization of 28 fraternities and sororities, governed by its own president, staff and representatives. Its goal is simple: to keep control of the SGA in the hands of primarily white Greek organizations. “Theta Nu Epsilon has elected an SGA president 68 times in the 75 years of the SGA's existence,” a Machine pamphlet from 1989 declares. “This is because the SGA is ours.”
It’s no idle boast. According to the articles compiled at the online archive Welcome to the Machine, Machine operatives have gone to extraordinary lengths in the past to maintain their grip on the SGA. They burned crosses on sorority lawns in 1976 after a coalition of sororities backed the election of Cleo Thomas, UA’s first black SGA president. According to an article in Esquire, members of the Machine in 1986 broke into the office of independent presidential candidate John Merrill. That same election year, the Crimson White reported, they allegedly threatened Merrill's wife with rape, ran one of his staffers off the road, and beat the head of the independent Alabama Students Party, Bob Shraeder, badly enough to land him in the hospital. In 1993, Minda Riley, another independent candidate, was attacked with a knife after receiving death threats. A freshman from a Machine sorority was driven to transfer schools in 2004 after receiving constant threatening calls, including one she related to the Crimson White: “You fucked up the day you decided to start thinking against us.”
The Machine also has a well-earned reputation for influencing Alabama state politics throughout the 20th century — at least 12 of its affiliated SGA presidents later became state senators, governors, or political operatives. Lister Hill, the founder of the Machine and the first Alabama SGA president, was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1923. So were William “Jack” Edwards (SGA president from 1952-53) and Walter Flowers (1955-56). Don E. Seigelman (1967-68) rose through the ranks of state government to become Alabama’s governor in 1999. An uncountable number of Machine alumni are likewise spread throughout the state. Rumors that former members of the Machine work in the University Administration, although never proved, are also an inescapable part of campus life.
Yet the organization’s statewide influence waned in recent years, especially after the 2010 Republican takeover of Alabama state government shifted the state political structure away from its traditionally Dixiecrat moorings. According to Katie Smith, a former Machine senator who publicly broke from the organization, the Machine pivoted toward consolidating power in Tuscaloosa’s local government, supporting Machine alumni in a 2013 municipal school board election that infuriated local citizens. In that race, The Tuscaloosa News reported, a former SGA president, the 26-year-old Cason Kirby, a former SGA president, defeated incumbent Kelly Horowitz by a narrow margin. Another UA alumnus, Lee Garrison, also won a seat as the School Board Chair.
“A series of emails allegedly encouraging fraternity and sorority members to vote for Kirby and Garrison — some promising drinks and other incentives for voting — have prompted concerns whether the Greek voting bloc influenced the municipal election,” Tuscaloosa News Reporter Ed Enoch wrote. He also related a telling quote by UA professor emeritus Bill Stewart, former chair of the political science department: “Elections lost by the Machine are very few and far between.”
In this environment, black students have not had an easy time of it. The University of Alabama has an infamously poor history when it comes to race: The school was segregated until the summer of 1963, when George Wallace stood in the doorway of the admissions office, flanked by state troopers and daring Vivian Malone and James Hood, the school’s first black students, to come past him. Integration brought steady, occasionally terroristic hounding of black students. Racism thrived in more subtle ways as well. According to Anthony James, a professor Carolina Community College who studied the intersection of race and Greek life, blackface parties and minstrel shows were common at UA in the ’30s, and considered unremarkable enough that one sorority chose a picture of its sisters in blackface for the campus yearbook. A survey of the The Crimson White archives shows that these parties continued well into the 1990s, including one event that drew such a firestorm of controversy it resulted in a brief, ineffective push for the full integration of the Greek system.
Black students currently make up about 12 percent of the student body. They have historically been kept out of traditional Greek life, and thus— because of the Machine’s dominion over the SGA — out of campus political power. Not for lack of trying; black women unsuccessfully attempted to join Panhellenic sororities from the 1980s to the 2000s, with few of them making it past the initial round of Rush and none receiving a bid. While there are historically black greek organizations at Alabama, only two currently have houses on campus: the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha and the fraternity Αlpha Phi Alpha. Khortlan Patterson, formerly president of AKA, told me that when their sorority got a house on Sorority Row in 1987, crosses burned on their lawn and white sorority women publicly fretted about the safety of having black men coming around their buildings.
The current climate is quieter but only marginally more welcoming. It’s hard for black students to find their niches, Patterson said: Many have difficulty getting plugged in with campus groups, and the black student organizations that do exist at UA have been in disarray for years. Few black students are able to afford the luxurious on-campus housing or join prestigious clubs: Patterson herself was the first black female member of the University Fellows, an honor she regards with ambivalence. Even ostensibly progressive student groups tend to be persistently white. Without much access to the kinds of welcoming spaces enjoyed by white students, many black students are thus left as marginal figures, perpetually reminded that they don’t entirely belong.
“I was always hyper-aware of being black on campus,” recalled Samaria Johnson, a former campus activist and recent graduate. “I just felt like I was under a spotlight all of the time, even minding my business out and about on campus, and that feeling only got stronger the more active I got.”
Then there’s the harassment, which runs the gamut from people crossing the street to avoid black students to racial slurs being lobbed from fraternity porches or passing cars. “My freshman year I was walking down Frat Row behind Bryant and [the fraternity] ATO,” Patterson said. “It was the middle of the day in the spring, and these dudes come out in a truck — they were leaving a day party — and they yelled out ‘Nigger!’ at me. In the middle of the day.”
Her experience was typical of the black students I interviewed for this story, including Spillers, and is consistent with stories I’ve heard from friends and with my own limited experiences. During a stay in one dormitory, it was not uncommon to overhear casually racist conversations in the halls or see slurs scribbled on bulletin boards. Two black Resident Advisers were called “nigger” in front of me. Many of my black friends flatly refused to walk behind Old Row alone — you never knew who you might run into, how drunk they’d be, or what they might do.
All of these tensions boiled for years before the 2013 UA Stands demonstration. And to some extent, they combined in the protest itself, which had hidden undercurrents of its own. To begin with, many of those who appeared were white, with the majority of black students present wearing the blue T-shirts of the Mallet Assembly. According to Spillers, Johnson and Patterson, most of the black organizations on campus weren’t informed, and those who were, including Alpha Phi Alpha, chose to sit it out. Part of that reticence was due to suspicion about the motives of UA Stands’ organizers, Johnson says, and part of it was due to suspecting that they were going to be used as political props in an attempt to garner more black support for a system that had no actual interest in them.
Adding to the confusion, the administration had taken its own steps to deal with the sorority problem. According to a New York Times report, a few days before the protest, President Bonner called representatives from the Panhellenic sororities into a tense meeting and informed them she was declaring an open admissions process, effectively desegregating them by fiat. All of this had, as usual, taken place behind closed doors, and the administration’s silence had resulted in a public relations disaster. When they got wind of the imminent protest, they saw a way to turn things around.
The day before the event, the administration summoned the leadership of UA Stands. “There was an attempt to strong-arm us,” Ross Green recalled. “They threatened all sorts of retribution: suspension, expulsion, police.” But eventually, he says, they worked out a deal: The administration took steps to address the integration issue, and the UA Stands protest became a rally.
To many observers, however, it seemed as if the administration had entirely co-opted the conversation to play down the bad publicity. This was not an unfair assumption: In an interview with campus radio, Judy Bonner managed to simultaneously laud student pressure and pass the buck. “The students wanted to make this happen,” she said. “There were many barriers identified — one that was always discussed was media descending upon them.”
In addition, Bonner laid the responsibility for integrating campus Greek life on traditionally black sororities as well as traditionally white ones, ignoring the fact that black Greek organizations at UA do accept non-black students who meet their criteria.
Still, for a while, it seemed like the university was finally serious about pursuing integration. On Sept. 20, 2013, traditionally white sororities offered 14 bids to black women, six of whom accepted. The faculty senate likewise created a diversity task force, which offered several recommendations for reforming the SGA. (According to Donna Meester, faculty senate president, these recommendations remain under consideration.) The historic barrier had been cracked, if not smashed, and the potential was there for a change in the racial dynamics at UA. The question was whether it would stick.
As the fall 2013 semester ground on, a curious silence settled across the University of Alabama. After submitting to the open bidding — a process by which offers were extended to potential sisters whether they participated through the formal rush or not — the sororities closed ranks. Multiple sources told me that several of the organizations conducting open recruitment quietly continued to stonewall attempts to add black women. According to an article in InsideEC, the Continuous Open Bidding director of Kappa Delta left her position after two weeks, calling the experience of trying to integrate her sorority "the most miserable thing [she’d] ever done in [her] entire life." The six black pledges were forbidden from speaking to the press. One of them, a freshman named Destyne Brown, told Inside EC that she’d been encouraged not to participate in interviews with CNN and other media outlets: “They were just like, ‘No, you don’t need that.’ I would have. The Crimson White tried to interview me, too, but I couldn’t.” Meanwhile, Greek students like Sam Creden — a friend of mine — who had spoken publicly to the media during the protest found themselves shunned by their fraternities. The SGA, for its part, refused to comment on the entire affair at all.
Meanwhile, the progressive sector stalled out. UA Stands folded in the month following the demonstration, giving rise to to student organizations like SODEL (Students for Open Doors and Ethical Leadership) and Blend, each of which attempted to bring together student leaders and foster an open dialogue about campus culture. The organizers of SODEL hoped to harness enough groundswell support to build something UA hadn’t seen for years — a viable independent coalition capable of challenging the Machine. But while the groups had some scattered success in organizing events, they’d lost the momentum. One by one, they pivoted toward other campus issues.
“Everyone wanted to do something,” recalled Elliot Spillers. He’s a senior now and still lanky, with an easy smile and a deliberate manner of speech. “You had SODEL and Blend, you had the Progressive Potluck…. You had these exact same organizations who were doing the exact same things. And I’m in both meetings, thinking, ‘Why don’t you merge together for the betterment of campus?’ But they didn’t want to do that.”
Spillers had been a peripheral figure in campus politics since he arrived in 2012, a self-described military brat majoring in business management. But he’d been making a name for himself through a mixture of slick presentation and raw charisma, a Clinton-like ability to slap backs and remember names. He had a particular skill for making white Greek students feel comfortable, presenting himself as a sharply dressed kid who spoke their language, shrugging off whatever insults came his way. That chameleonic unflappability also doubles as a preemptive defense.
“I’m a very optimistic personality,” Spillers said. “If I’m the only black person you ever meet in your entire life, I’m gonna make damn sure it’s going to be good. I want you to know that I’m not a stereotype.” In a way, he said, it’s a bit like being a politician: “You have to constantly redefine and fine tune yourself. You always have to be aware of your surroundings. You always have to be aware of who’s listening to you.”
Those networking skills didn’t help Spillers much in his first election, a spur-of-the-moment run at the SGA senate in spring 2013. He had the support and mentorship of campus leaders like the SGA’s Sydney Page, herself the latest in a tradition of black political operators stretching back to Cleo Thomas. But, as Spillers freely admits, he wasn’t ready. He had also picked a particularly unfortunate time to make the attempt. According to Andrew Parks, student columnist and the director of political engagement with the nonprofit United Alabama Project, the 2013 elections were a general mess. Widespread apathy led to an abysmal 18-percent voter turnout, a new low even for the generally uninterested voting populace at UA. Most of the Machine candidates for executive positions ran uncontested.
Page, who’d taken an appointed directorship position with the SGA, selected Spillers as her deputy. He crossed back and forth across campus throughout the fall 2013 semester, talking to student groups and taking part in the UA Stands demonstration, networking as he went. As the protest faded into the rearview mirror and the 2014 SGA elections appeared on the horizon, Spillers felt it was time to take another crack at it. This time he decided to go for an executive position. Vice President of Student Affairs, he felt, would fit his interests nicely. That decision that put him on his first collision course with the Machine.
The political processes of UA’s student government are somewhat murky at the best of times, an issue not helped by the fact that most of them take place in secret. But it’s necessary here to note a few points. The first is that the university currently lacks student-specific political parties, a state of affairs dating back to the 1993 knife attack on Minda Riley. The incident was so outrageous (and the identity of her father, state senator and governor-to-be Bob Riley, so august) that the administration lost patience and dissolved student government for three years. It was an attempt to uproot the Machine for good, but it ended up having the opposite effect. When the constitution was rewritten, Parks said, the revisers forbade the formation of partisan organizations. The Machine skated under this restriction by not technically existing. However, the decision hamstrung independent politicians by requiring them to run either alone or in loose factions, scrambling for votes wherever they could.
Also notable is the nebulous method by which the Machine selects its candidates. In essence, member houses take turns to offer candidates, which are then voted on by the assembled representatives. But in practice, this mechanism is apparently complicated by some fairly byzantine scheming: a houses’ turn can be delayed or taken away should they incur the Machine’s displeasure. A 2011 report by the Crimson White noted that there was no formal process for gaining a nomination, but for the most part, the process spits out a succession of uncontroversial candidates.
For the 2014 elections, the Machine’s choice for VPSA was Stephen “Stevie” Keller, a finance major from Baton Rouge and a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, an Old Row fraternity. According to several sources, Stevie (who refused several requests for comment for this story) had a reputation for high-handedness and arrogance that made him unpopular in Greek circles. Getting the Machine nomination meant that his election to the VPSA was all but assured. He came into the election with a dependable voting block of more than 7,000, a crushing figure in a campus election. The results weren’t even close: When Election Day arrived on March 10, Keller walked away with 59 percent of the vote.
But Election Day also brought a snag. Keller and his associates spent the day passing out lime-green fliers listing candidates affiliated with a group labeled “Students for Experienced Leadership.” This, naturally, was the Machine slate, which presented a problem: While loose factions weren’t illegal under SGA rules, directly campaigning for affiliated candidates was distinctly not kosher.
A visitor to the university, Chris Allen, surreptitiously recorded Keller handing out the fliers, and then spoke to Keller himself. “So you know these guys?” he asked the candidate. “This is your group?”
On the recording, Keller told him that it was. But when asked about it in a subsequent interview on campus radio, Keller floundered, claiming to have no knowledge of the group. The fliers, he said, had been a gift from an independent group of students, whom he’d never met and had no contact with.
“Do you know who paid for these fliers?” the reporter asked him.
“No, sir,” Keller replied. “I was just handed a handful and I told everyone, ‘Thank you very much.’”
“When your financial report comes out,” the reporter pressed, “is it going to say anything about this green form?”
“Uh,” Keller said. “No, it’s actually not. I only report finances I personally spent, and like I said, I was handed fliers, and I started handing them out to students, thank you very much.”
In essence, not only had Keller been caught in a lie, he had admitted to election fraud on-air. He’d been caught distributing materials which he hadn’t paid for, which carried a penalty of immediate disqualification according to the SGA Elections Board handbook. Spillers, who’d raked in a respectable 4,000 votes of his own, filed an immediate complaint with the Board. “That’s pretty bold, you know, to admit that out in the public,” he told the radio station. “If justice should have it, he would get disqualified.”
For a week, the position of VPSA sat in limbo while the Elections Board deliberated. Then the decision was handed down; the Board declared that Keller had violated the rules, despite submitting a disclosure form that included the funds at the last possible minute on Election Day. His sentence: 75 hours of community service. The office of VPSA, despite the written rules, would remain his. Keller’s response was to complain about the wrist slapping to the Crimson White: “In every way, I followed the specific rules that are listed in the Elections Manual.”
“It hurt,” Spillers told me, when I asked him about it a year later. The subject brought an uncharacteristic bluntness. “The fact that in bold print it said that ‘failure to turn in any financial disclosure form is subject to disqualification,’ and that he didn’t get disqualified. They made an entire runaround excuse for how it wasn’t illegal...But even speaking with him personally, he didn’t want it. He didn’t authentically see the motive behind the office. What it meant. What it entailed. The students he’d be serving. He wanted it for the power or the title.”
Overall, not a single independent student won an executive position in the 2014 election. The Machine celebrated by busily tamping down dissent in the SGA, where one of their own senators, Katie Smith, had broken ranks to ally with Chisolm Allenlundy, an independent senator, in order to propose a nonbinding resolution calling for the full integration of the Greek system. Smith, a member of Alpha Omicron Pi, had already been in hot water with the Machine for leaking evidence of their influence in the 2013 Tuscaloosa municipal elections, and her attempts to get the organization to back a similar resolution around the time of the UA Stands demonstration came to nothing. By March 21, Smith lost her temper. She quit the Machine and immediately brought the resolution to the SGA Senate. The session that ensued was one of the most hostile she ever attended, she told me, full of people who had clearly been coached against her bill.
“Someone asked me in the senate why I thought Alabama has a problem of racism,” she said, a note of disbelief creeping into her voice. “First of all, we’re debating this right now on a senate floor in 2014. I think that’s an indication that Alabama has a problem of racism.”
The bill was summarily killed as the old student government left office, surprising nobody. But this proved to be a miscalculation; after widespread national scorn, the new SGA Senate hurriedly brought the bill back up for a vote under the name of a Machine senator. This time it passed by an overwhelming majority. “I am proud of the Senate’s dedication to integration,” Hamilton Bloom, the new Machine-backed president, wrote in a statement to the Crimson White. “Although our University has come very far over the past two semesters, we still have a long road ahead, and my administration is fully dedicated to seeing and encouraging results.”
Round one had gone, as so many had, to the Machine. Spillers, however, was preparing for round two.
The 2014-2015 academic year dawned with a scream, a rolling sound that echoed through the hot air like high-pitched thunder. On Aug. 16, more than 2,000 women decked in dresses and pearls flooded from the massive expanse of Bryant-Denny Stadium, stampeding in long lines down the streets of Sorority Row toward their appointed houses. The participants in UA’s first integrated sorority rush, by far the largest in the nation’s history, had just received their bids. Like most “Bid Days,” it was a festive event, the culmination of two grueling weeks of Rush. But this time the festivities were restricted: In a sharp departure from previous years, the media access to Rush was heavily controlled, with on-the-street interviews forbidden and all inquiries directed toward the university’s Office of Media Relations. Instead, UA provided a set of numbers to the press: Of the 2,054 women who received bids, 21 were black.
The effectiveness of the integration initiative was still an open question: While this was a step up from last year, observers agreed, 25 students out of over 2,000 was an uncomfortably small number. Several of the sorority women I spoke with (none of whom wanted me to use their names) brushed the issue off as one of cultural differences. Black women, they opined, were less likely to be comfortable in Panhellenic settings. Since this had been the public explanation Panhellenic sororities used when dropping black candidates prior to integration, many independents viewed this claim with suspicion.
But there was some truth to it; none of the black students I talked to were particularly eager to become the token black member of an all-white sorority. “I personally did not want to go into the Panhellenic system,” Patterson told me, “even though I’d been approached.”
The real issue, Patterson said, was socioeconomic, with an emphasis on the economics. According to UA Panhellenic website, sororities are incredibly expensive, with dues as high as $6,500 per year for those living in-house. That’s more than many black students are able to pay, Patterson said, especially for those who have to work, or are the first in their families to attend college. In addition, most Panhellenic sororities place a premium on an upper-class cultural background, complete with internships, prestigious schools and expensive vacations. Some black students are interested in that environment, Patterson said, and can afford it. But most others tend to gravitate to black Greek life, which is cheaper and more welcoming. Patterson herself joined AKA, a historically black sorority, and served as chapter president. It’s a more comfortable environment for her, she said: “We have a plethora of cultural differences in AKA. There’s people from all over the country; there’s people from different socioeconomic statuses.”
Nonetheless, on Bid Day the UA administration took pains to assure people that no black woman who’d been interested had been left out. “Every young woman identifying herself as African-American received a bid,” an administration official told the Crimson White. “None withdrew from recruitment or were released.”
In other words, everything had been entirely above board. Problem solved. No embarrassments.
The first embarrassment arrived that afternoon, after a Snapchat showing three smiling white women and the tagline “Chi O got NO NIGGAS!” began circulating on campus. (The statement was not only offensive but also incorrect: Chi Omega had in fact pledged a handful of black women.) This time, the administration managed not to be caught flat-footed, releasing a statement Monday that condemned the image and promised action would be taken. The Huffington Post reported a few days later that Chi Omega had expelled the girl responsible.
But more racially tinged incidents arrived soon afterward: A few weeks later, two female students filed separate police reports claiming sexual harassment by black men, both of which were later recanted, according to reports on AL.com. The most spectacular flare-up came on Sept. 21, in the form of an unsubstantiated shooter threat warning members of the white Greek system to expect retribution in the name of “minorities.” The threat sparked a panicked exodus from Sorority Row, forced the cancellation of classes and led to a police search of Tutwiler Hall, a women’s dorm. By the time the dust cleared, two white fraternity brothers were arrested for encouraging the panic by sending anonymous threats of their own as a practical joke. Both were charged with making terroristic threats. The original culprit was never found.
Despite the best efforts of the administration, the campus was once again smothered by a strange, expectant atmosphere. Between the media-shy sororities and the weird events of September, there was a strong sense of forces stirring behind the scenes. You could sense it in the air, one friend wrote to me: “It feels like everyone’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Spillers, now a junior, had been appointed Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs as a goodwill gesture by Keller. But working under Keller had not been productive, Spillers told me: He’d been stymied in his attempts to do anything with the position on his own, and Keller had chosen to hold his staff meetings on nights when Elliot had class. If anything, the entire experience had hardened his resolve. Next election, he decided, he was going for the presidency. That October, he gathered a group of people together to figure out how to make that happen.
The people in the room with Spillers all had various connections to UA’s political scene. Chisolm Allenlundy, the original co-writer of the SGA integration resolution, came on as his political strategist. Andrew Parks of the United Alabama Project was in the room as well. Together they sat down with recorded elections data from the past several years, Parks recalled, crunching numbers, scribbling on whiteboards, trying to figure out what it would take to beat the Machine. The voting bloc they were up against was nearly impossible to beat even by rallying the scattered groups of the independent caucus. The only way to win, they realized, was to somehow split the Greek vote. That strategy had worked in 1976, when Cleo Thomas won the presidency by rallying the sororities, and in 1986, when current Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill did the same with New Row fraternities. But both times, Parks said, the Machine had quickly recruited the rogue Greek houses into its structure, offering them more power as an incentive to toe the line. Spillers was going to have to find some new cracks to exploit in order to build his own coalition.
As it happened, a few such fissures had begun to open within even the oldest Greek houses. These were difficult to detect from the outside — only John Brinkerhoff, a friend and colleague of mine from the Crimson White and an alumni of Sigma Phi Epsilon, would speak to me on the record about it. According to Brinkerhoff, the convulsions around the sorority segregation scandal forced many of the chapters on campus into quiet conversations about their racial makeup. Small numbers of Greek students, most of them from out of state, had pushed for integration prior to the protest. But their efforts petered out, undercut by widespread lack of interest, resistance from alumni, or fear of social ostracization from other chapters. None of the large organizations were willing to make the first step, Brinkerhoff said. The Crimson White article, and the ensuing protest and media coverage, finally forced them to move.
“A huge amount of it was PR awareness,” Brinkerhoff said. There had been internal pressure in various houses on the subject of integration for decades, he said, but without sustained outside pressure, the topic never seemed to go anywhere. The overwhelming attention from the protest gave the reformers inside the Greek system some ammunition. “A lot of white students who never had an outlet to express their dissatisfaction with the racial status quo on campus finally had an outlet to stand up and say something,” Brinkerhoff said. “And as a functional issue, out-of-state students were a lot of the ones who were protesting. They hadn't been fully indoctrinated into the tradition.”
In the aftermath, Brinkerhoff said, when it was clear to everyone that integration wasn’t going anywhere, some members tried to draw in more minority pledges — with varying degrees of success — and pushed their chapters to adopt a more open posture. But comprehensive change remained rare, frustrating those working on the inside. “Generally, the rest of the Greek community still doesn’t care,” Brinkerhoff said. “Which shows the lesson hasn’t translated.”
If somebody from outside could reach the disaffected, however — and provide them with a packaged opportunity to make a political point of their displeasure — there was a good chance that they would flip. Spillers went to work.
Meanwhile, rumors began to filter out that Stephen Keller was working to get himself on the Machine slate for the presidency. In theory, Parks said, Keller’s position had never been stronger: The VPSA position had traditionally functioned as a direct stepping stone into the position, and Keller was the presumptive nominee. If he won the Machine slate, it was his election to lose. But the support Keller needed wasn’t surfacing, Parks said. He remained unpopular, and the way he’d handled the fiasco with the fliers made him look unreliable and easily flustered. Keller thus found himself fighting for a nomination others had coasted into.
Keller hustled for backing in the traditional way: by showering largesse on the right people. “I’m friends with him on Facebook,” Allenlundy said. “I saw pictures of him, where he’d brought a bunch of friends to his sister’s extravagant wedding in Baton Rouge … and I was looking at these pictures and thinking, ‘I know these people. They’re all Machine reps.’” Parks confirmed that story and added another: that Keller took four Machine reps to the 2015 Sugar Bowl, a college football semifinal in New Orleans.
On Feb. 17, a month before the election, the Machine representatives held a meeting to determine their slate. Parks, who spoke to people who were in the meeting, said that it was a tense gathering. Representatives from Sigma Nu, an Old Row fraternity, went after Keller, questioning his electability and experience. Instead they offered a challenger from their own house: Tate Thomas. In the end, Parks said, it came down to a vote by the representatives. When the doors opened, Keller walked out the nominee, having won by a narrow 16-14 vote. According to a friend of Chisolm’s, one of the Machine representatives allegedly stormed out of the room, rounded on another rep, and snarled, “He’s going to lose. And we’re going to lose our block seating.” It was a comment that embodied an absurdity at the heart of Alabama student politics — corruption not just in the service of political power, but also in the interest of keeping good seats at Crimson Tide football games.
Spillers capitalized on the dissension. As the official opening of campaign season approached, he stepped up his efforts to reach out to Greek houses. His girlfriend was a member of the Machine sorority Alpha Gamma Delta, and through her, Spillers was able to gain their support. Soon afterward, he scored another coup: With Allenlundy acting as go-between, Spillers managed to forge a historic alliance with Tate Thomas, placing them on the same ticket and thereby dragging Sigma Nu halfway out of the Machine’s orbit. Still smarting from Keller’s successful bid for the Machine nomination, Allenlundy said, the fraternity wasn’t hard to persuade.
Spillers’ other connections in UA Greek life paid off as he picked up steam. Three years’ worth of networking and glad-handing had given him backing in every corner of UA. Chi Omega and Alpha Omicron Pi, both Machine sororities, lent him partial support, and individuals from various Machine houses broke ranks to support him on the sly. “Throughout my years at the University,” Spillers told me before the election, “I had friends in the Machine who went against it to help me out. That’s happening again. That’s how I know something is changing. Not the entire Machine, but friends of mine believe in me enough to back me.”
When election season officially began on Feb. 26, both campaigns hit the ground running. Spillers stood as the only independent executive candidate against a nearly full Machine slate. In an interview with the Crimson White, he unveiled his platform, complete with promises to tackle transparency, raise awareness of student mental health issues and develop ways to help victims of sexual assault. All the preparation and false starts had paid off: This time, when he stepped into the spotlight, he was electric. He sailed through debates and interviews alike, unshaken by incidents like stolen campaign banners, spinning out a narrative that enfolded the upheavals and disappointments of the past few years.
“UA is for all,” he told people. “Not for some.” To a student body drained by the struggles around the sorority integration and drained by the constant media furors, it was precisely the right message. An Obama-like subtext bubbled under everything, in the #SpillTheVote hashtags flooding social media, in the rapturous enthusiasm that greeted Spillers online. He was the black candidate of change, and Keller was the face of the establishment. Keller fought back, declaring himself independently minded and championing his SGA experience, but the ground beneath him was slipping. Quietly, Parks said, the Machine shifted its focus toward electing the rest of its SGA senators. The campus held its breath.
At 8 p.m. on March 10, the online polls closed. On the side of the quad that had hosted the UA Stands march, the Spillers campaign staff crowding the tiny brick Toumey Hall erupted in cheers. The cheers spread across the quad, through the dorms, out onto the streets, across the Internet. Elliot Spillers had won the SGA presidency by 58 percent of the vote, the Crimson White reported, smashing Stephen Keller and becoming the second black student government president in the University of Alabama’s history. He took office on March 31 on a campus with integrated sororities, backed by one of the largest voter turnouts recently seen on UA’s campus.
“We did it,” Spillers told his supporters. “Thank you. We all did it.” The news reports flashed, glowing, proud: The Machine was beaten. Change had really, officially come to Alabama.
What does it mean to move into the 21st century? Throughout the course of reporting this story, I grappled with this question. There’s an ever-present temptation to view change as a wave rolling up a beach, sweeping everything in its path. A new person is elected. A system is altered. The water pounds at the sand. And yet when the wave rolls out, the beach remains. Shifted, yes, reorganized, layers of sediment jumbled or scoured away. But the coastline stretches on.
Spillers’ problems began with his inauguration on April 1st, 2014. He took office alone, after his running mate Tate Thomas lost a runoff election to the Machine candidate. The Machine now controls the rest of the executive board and most of the SGA Senate. Over the last months of the spring 2015 semester, Spillers fought tooth and nail to select his own chief of staff, nominating first Allenlundy, then a junior named Douglas Logan, then Allenlundy again. Each time the Senate voted them down. Spillers eventually got his way: the SGA Judicial Board stepped in on April 21, overturning the Senate’s decision and allowing Allenlundy to take the position. But his allies also had trouble. Attempts by the United Alabama Project to sponsor election reform legislation were also unceremoniously killed, Parks said, despite several speeches in favor and a poll showing support from over 60 percent of campus.
“[The Machine] is running the ‘Party of No’ strategy,” Parks told me. “I think by the time this is over, [Spillers’ administration] is going to have to stand up and fight…. Elliot wants to revive some bills, including the elections bill. He’s planning on tackling sexual assault. I’m fully expecting the Machine to oppose them on every single one of those things.” Whether or not that will prove true remains to be seen.
The Machine has, for the moment, suffered a blow. But the Machine has suffered blows before and proved resilient: its most potent weapon is the regular turnover of students and the resulting instability and apathy of the wider student body. I’ve lost count of the number of people who lamented to me that if only people cared, if only enough people voted, the Machine could be squashed again and again. Spiller’s election proved that to be true. But then, Cleo Thomas and John Merrill proved it as well, and each was preceded and succeeded by a long string of Machine presidents. Politics-as-usual rules at Alabama as much as anywhere else: past the occasional flare of interest aroused by a charismatic candidate like Elliot, people ignore student government.
The Panhellenic sororities are integrated now; but as of the 2015 sorority rush, integration at Alabama looks like 241 minority students spread across a pledge class of 2,261. This has not stopped at least one sorority from recently advertising itself with a tone-deaf recruitment video that features uniformly white and blond members cavorting on the quad, not a minority woman to be seen. (The University of Alabama, once again acting with uncharacteristic speed, condemned the video.) A few of the fraternities also pledge a black student every now and then — because their pledge process is much more informal, it’s hard to monitor in the same way. That opacity has now spread to the sororities, too: Beginning this year, the university will no longer release more specific demographic numbers, citing “safety” concerns. Besides, 241 minority women is a much nicer figure than 21 black ones.
Yet here is a truth that is difficult to acknowledge: Even if Alabama’s palatial Greek houses threw open their doors to black students, their racial composition would hardly change. According to the UA Penhellenic Association, the average cost to live in a sorority house can run as high as $26,000 for four years. The UA Interfraternity Council lists the typical price of fraternity life at $18,440 for the same amount of time. As Patterson pointed out, this simply too much for most black students to pay. Culturally, the traditionally white organizations prize the kind of upper class activities that most minority students in Alabama often cannot afford. The black women who successfully joined Panhellenic sororities were exceptional candidates, in that all of them were exceptions.
The majority of national Greek organizations write in their guidelines that they do not condone discrimination of any kind. Yet the de facto segregation that’s still common at UA is still common around the country: In 2010, Matthew Hughey, an assistant professor of sociology University of Connecticut, performed a study of diversity in Greek organizations. The resulting paper, “A Paradox of Participation” concluded that, while small numbers of minority students occasionally make it into traditionally white organizations across the country, by and large they remain marginal figures once inside.
Hughey records several examples of this; Black students who are assumed to be more intimately acquainted with poverty and charity, and are often pushed into chapter Community Service positions as a result; Minority students who are subjected to more extensive hazing or drinking, under the assumption that they can “take it”; and most commonly, minority members pressured into performing a sanitized version of stereotypical racial identities. “While it remains possible for blacks to gain entry to [White Greek Life Organizations] and even ‘climb the ranks’ as leaders and gatekeepers of particular institutional activities,” Hughey wrote, “it is clear that such material transformation does not equate with a change in the cultural logic of the institution.”
It should surprise nobody that the dominant cultural practices of Panhellenic and IFC Greek life follow those of traditionally upper-crust white society, and anyone who joins has to conform to those roles. But it is worth pausing to wonder whether such values are incompatible with fostering diversity of any kind; if indeed, they are not actively inimical to it. By breaking an explicit color line, UA’s Greek system now stands with the rest of the country: Minority students are no longer excluded specifically on the basis of race, but on the basis of class and social background. In this more enlightened century, such metrics are a much more effective method of keeping them out.
Yet the most insidious facet of life at the University of Alabama remains its culture of backroom dealing. This is most easily noted in the Greek system, where students, whatever their political allegiances, tend to lock ranks when publically questioned. Sometimes this is due to overwhelming social pressure not to rock the boat, or explicit policies regarding contact with the media. In other cases, internal conflict keeps people silent.
“Some people are very proud of their fraternity or sorority,” Brinkerhoff said. “You love it even though you're ashamed of it. You take pride in it even though you hate it. It's a very complex, nuanced relationship, so trying to get people to speak publicly on it almost inherently requires them to trash something they love.”
Meanwhile, politics are still conducted with a minimum of transparency and no accountability, Parks said. The United Alabama Project is attempting to combat this by releasing the names and voting records of SGA senators, urging students to contact those politicians whose votes they disagree with. But while these are promising first steps, they have yet to take root as a systemic reform, and as long as the Machine maintains control of the SGA senate, they are unlikely to do so. This culture of silence has infiltrated other parts of campus life as well: Underground societies like the White Rose Society and the mysterious Argentum operate in the strictest confidence, recruiting a network of student leaders from all corners of UA to help their agenda. Argentum is in some ways a classic case: Its existence has never been publicly verified in the ways the Machine has. While former Argentum member Marina Roberts (who, full disclosure, is a close friend) insists that the group is benevolent, and that its covertness exists only to ensure the recruitment of those truly invested in helping campus, she also acknowledges that secrecy itself is corrosive. According to the 1992 Esquire article, Theta Nu Epsilon, the national organization that birthed the Alabama Machine, also believed at its inception that working underground guaranteed selflessness. Now, that secrecy allows the Machine and other groups alike to operate without accountability or oversight, a situation that is ripe for abuse, and contributes to a cloud of mistrust and paranoia that smothers UA.
And yet the UA administration is the worst offender of all in this respect. The Board of Trustees is almost comically opaque; according to a report by AL.com, several members have personal or professional ties to the same bank and a tendency to meet in secret, in defiance of state law. “The entire board, going back several decades, appears to be a group whose primary role is to establish and maintain relationships with politicians and wealthy donors,” writes David Pelfrey in “A River Ruined Through It,” a damning investigation into the trustees’ attempts to sell Shepherd Bend, a plot of land immediately upstream from a Birmingham water intake, for surface coal mining. One of those wealthy donors, trustee emeritus Gary Neal Drummond, is allegedly responsible for pressuring the board to put the land up for sale, Pelfrey reports. Drummond Coal Company, by the way, has been sued three times for allying with right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups involved in the murder of union leaders.
UA has also gone through three presidents in four years, with the third, Judy Bonner, abruptly stepping down this summer with hardly any explanation. “I would like to return to my first love,” she announced in a press release, “which is teaching and working more directly with students.” Her predecessor, Guy Bailey, began the job in September 2012, ordered the shutdown of fraternity pledgeship in the wake of a massive hazing scandal on Oct. 18, and resigned on Oct. 31. He told AL.com in a subsequent interview that the decision had more to do with his wife’s poor health and miscommunications with trustees than with his action with the Greek community. This was probably true. But the administration’s compulsive tight-lippedness meant that few people believed it.
Step away from the details, however, and a larger issue presents itself. Yes, Alabama has changed: The days when the Machine operated with complete impunity are gone, and the campus is more integrated now than it has been in years. And the campus population itself is changing: 45 percent of the student body now comes from out of state, a demographic shift that promises to further unsettle campus power dynamics.
But how much that change actually matters is an open question. To speak as if this moment represents progress is to succumb to the softest possible bigotry of the lowest possible expectations. The same racial issues present on UA’s campus have metastasized for years in every corner of the country, often in more violent and tragic forms, checked only by a halting awareness on the part of the wider populace. The same obstructionism and lack of transparency the SGA demonstrates is endemic to most of our modern political processes. The same superstructure of class undergirds every institution in our culture. If the University of Alabama has truly joined the rest of America in the 21st century, then that is a damning statement for America.
In 1963, Wallace stood aside and the campus changed. In 1976, Cleo Thomas got himself elected as Alabama’s first black SGA president, and the campus changed. In 1993, the SGA was disbanded and reformed, and the campus changed. In 2013, the sororities were integrated, and the campus changed. In 2015, Elliot Spillers was elected as Alabama’s second black student government president, and the campus changed.
Each change was a wave, chewing on the shore, rearranging the sand. The beach remains. We’re all waiting for the wave that sticks.
As this story went to press, new evidence of Machine electioneering came to light through the efforts of the United Alabama Project. It’s homecoming season at Alabama, and much as the Machine fights to maintain seating at football games, it also has historically controlled the election of Homecoming Queens. This year, three black women ran for the position. One of them was Khortlan Patterson. Another was Halle Lindsay, a black woman who recently joined the traditionally white Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. Lindsay is also Elliot Spillers' girlfriend.
According to screen captures leaked to the United Alabama Project, Alpha Gamma Delta pressured its members not to show public support for Lindsay.
“Posting your support on social media is not fair to the rest of the house or to future members of Alpha Gam,” one message read. “If we keep going against the Machine we will start losing more and more support from them and will not have as many opportunities to be involved on campus.”
The University of Alabama offered the following statement: “UA encourages every student to vote for the candidate of their choice, knowing their votes are confidential. No one has the right to know how individual students vote. It is completely unacceptable for any organization to engage in intimidation and coercion in any fashion. We have worked hard to help ensure the integrity of elections held on our campus and will continue to take allegations of improper activities seriously.”
According to one of the messages leaked to UAP, Alpha Gamma Delta’s current disfavor with the Machine stems from the actions of “certain members who took it upon themselves to support Elliot Spillers instead of the machine candidate.” Instead, members were pressured to support a woman from Phi Mu, Katelyn Katsafanas.
Katsafanas won the race for Homecoming Queen and was crowned on Saturday.