The political group known as the Machine has moved in and out of the conversation and media surrounding the University of Alabama for decades. Attention to the group has even spread nationally – Esquire Magazine devoted its cover story to covering the Machine in April of 1992.
Students and members of the UA community have dismissed the Machine as fictional, demonized it as a force of corruption in campus politics and shrugged it off as friends helping friends in the SGA.
John Merrill, who ran against the Machine and won to become SGA President from 1986 to 1987, summarized it this way in 2005: “The Machine is a select coalition of traditionally white fraternities and sororities designed to influence campus politics. If you’re one of them, you can make it. And if you’re not, you can’t. And even if you are one of them and you’re not in the right house the right year, you still can’t.”
From TNE to ‘Machine’
The Crimson White first published content regarding the group, originally known as Theta Nu Epsilon, 83 years ago. In 1928, the first accusations of political corruption came against the organization.
“There exists or has existed a secret national political fraternity on the campus,” William J. Cabaniss said in a letter to The Crimson White. “This institution is called Theta Nu Epsilon.
“It is admitted by the President of the Student Body that Theta Nu Epsilon was organized before the elections of 1927, whereby he was elected to his present high position in the affairs of the University,” Cabaniss said. “In the President’s own words its object was ‘to help the students of the University select the best candidate for each office that is filled by student election.’
“In addition to these direct admissions from the President, there are other and possibly graver charges made by others who were either connected with Theta Nu Epsilon or who were directly aware of its activities. Chief among these is the accusation that the organization members formed a political machine which had as its purpose the election of its chosen candidate for each office, this to be accomplished by the understanding of each member to support and work for the entire slate.”
That letter, published on March 29, 1928, was the first time that the group was referred to in the newspaper as a political machine. By the 1940s, the secret society was commonly referred to simply as the Machine.
Since then, the Machine has become a near-permanent figure in campus dialogue, and has been accused of questionable influence in campus politics, including the harassment of political opponents through verbal and written threats, burning crosses and physical assaults.
Dale Wallace, who was elected as SGA president in 1975, said in an interview in September 2011 that the Machine endorsed his campaign, but it was different in the 1970s and has since become more concerned with its own power instead of the betterment of campus.
“[In the 1970's] its focus ensured that whatever was best for the University was always first and foremost,” Wallace said.
However, as the Machine became more and more political, Wallace said, there was less focus on what its students valued.
“There was a shift that occurred, in my opinion, as evidenced by the University’s enrollment growth,” Wallace said. “When this happened, the fraternities were able to gain the ability to send out significant numbers to vote. I think more openness is a good thing on the surface, but if you’re doing this not to back the best candidate, but to reassert your control, it adds to the whole idea of power leading to corruption.
“Whether it be the Machine or another political group, if you lose sight of your purpose, then you’ve gone astray,” Wallace said. “Any political party that doesn’t have its primary concern to serve its constituents, in this case the University’s students, has lost its purpose.”
Wallace noted that at the time he was elected, the Machine did not include sororities, and that their eventual inclusion gave the Machine a great deal of power. Their addition to the Machine came only one year after Wallace’s presidency.
Cleo Thomas breaks boundaries
That year, in 1976, independent Cleophus Thomas was elected to serve as the SGA’s first and only black president.
After Thomas’ victory, select sororities were integrated into the Machine to ensure that sororities, who strongly backed Thomas, would not be used against the Machine’s candidates in the future.
“For most of its history, girls were not allowed in the Group,” The Alabama Chronicle reported in 1983. “In the 1970s, when sorority girls began posing a political threat and when the independent population of the University began increasing, sororities were invited to join the Group. Also, to offset the growing independent vote, more fraternities were invited to join.”
Thomas said it was this expansion and growing independent apathy that allowed only two non-Machine candidates to win the presidency since he accomplished the task in 1976.
“I take no pride in being the sole African-American SGA President in the history of the University of Alabama,” Thomas said in an interview this October. “It’s no longer a source of pride. One wishes for a more open and representative government. I was of course deeply honored to be elected, and was privileged to have that position, but one would hope that others would have had the opportunity.
“Institutional barriers exist for all independent candidates, especially the lack of a continuing institution for independents, and they are looking in the face of an entrenched one for their opposition, which is the Machine.”
Thomas said the biggest obstacles he faced during his election campaign did not stem from his race, as many expected it would, but rather his non-greek status and the sheer power of the Machine to produce candidates and voters.
“It’s like Tammany Hall or any other long-standing dominant political machine,” Thomas said. “The Machine is there from year to year with institutional memory, with financial resources, with a training ground and process to select individuals early and bring them through the system. An independent student does not have that institutional benefit, so typically, the Machine candidate is more qualified on paper because from the first time they were on campus there has been a system to select them and guide them and grow them.”
“If you are an independent student,” Thomas said, “Unless you are a person of enormous ambition, as I was, and have a real understanding of the system, and know what one has to do from day one on that campus to amass the qualifications, you’re not likely to have the qualification or sophistication to make it through the process. It’s like Alabama playing Davidson in football. Absent divine intervention, we know the outcome of that. It’s really over before it begins.”
Read Thursday’s edition of The Crimson White for part two of this series, in which we look at the accusations of violence leveled against the Machine since its inception nearly a century ago.