Tracking the Machine: A timeline of UA’s ‘underground’ greek organization

Tracking+the+Machine%3A+A+timeline+of+UA%27s+%27underground%27+greek+organization

CW File

Jessa Reid Bolling | @jr_bolling, News Editor

College campus tours serve as a useful way for prospective students to learn about higher education institutions and make informed decisions on where they will pursue their college education. Tours usually cover details about various clubs on campus, residence life and notable historic facts.

One thing that the University of Alabama campus tours don’t cover is the decades old controversy surrounding an underground society.

The Machine, or Theta Nu Epsilon, is a not-so-secret organization controlled by historically white fraternities and sororities that operates underground at the University. The group has allegedly influenced how members of Greek life should vote in campus-wide elections, most notably Student Government Association elections, as well as affecting other activities both on and off campus. 

Stories of alleged Machine actions have grown over decades, including burglary, cross-burning, vandalism and social ostracism, to name a few. Two decades ago, the Student Government Association was temporarily disbanded after a non-Machine presidential candidate claimed she was assaulted. A former Tuscaloosa school board member sued over claims the group improperly swayed a city election by providing students with booze and concert tickets in 2013. While actions taken by the Machine have become less recognizable and less violent in recent years, the organization’s past has become clearer with time.

Various news outlets have reported on actions attributed to the underground society, though the University has never officially acknowledged that the Machine exists.

A timeline of notable alleged Machine activity:

1976

  • Cleo Thomas became the first Black SGA president and the first African American to defeat the Machine. Shortly after, 15 men in white sheets burned a cross, threw bottles and chanted “revolutionary tunes” on campus.

1983

  • The FBI investigated the 1983 SGA election after newly-elected independent SGA President John Bolus found someone was tapping his phone.

1986

  • A cross was burned outside of a house that Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority, was considering using as a residence for members. No charges were filed in the cross burning, though it was rumored the Machine was involved. 
  • Independent candidate for SGA president John Merrill discovered two alleged members of the Machine breaking into his office. One of Merrill’s campaign workers claimed his car had been run off the road while returning to campus from home and Merrill’s wife was allegedly threatened with rape by the Machine.

1989

  • Joey Viselli claimed his father’s restaurant, Bama-Bino Pizza, was forced to close after Greeks boycotted the restaurant to punish Viselli for running as an independent against a Machine candidate for SGA president. Viselli claimed one of his campaign workers was beaten and that he received bomb threats.

1991

  • About 4,000 copies of The Crimson White were allegedly stolen by the Machine in an effort to prevent students from reading an exposé on the political organization the day before SGA elections.

1992

  • Esquire Magazine devoted its cover story to the Machine.

1993

  • The University suspended the SGA until 1996 after a non-Machine candidate for SGA president was assaulted at her home and a burning cross was placed in her yard. The victim was reported to have sustained “a golf-ball-size bruise on her cheek, a busted lip and a knife wound on the side of her face.” Months before the attack, a cross had been burned on her front lawn and threatening messages were found in her mailbox.

1999

  • Fabien Zinga, a Black student who ran for president as an independent, received racial threats that he blamed on the Machine.

2013 

  • Emails from alleged members of the Machine show sorority and fraternity members were coerced to vote a certain way in a local school board election in exchange for rewards such as limousine transportation to polling stations and free drinks at local bars. 
  • A candidate who lost their bid for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education election filed a lawsuit after alleged Machine influence.

2015 

  • The student group “We Are Done” protested to demand the University increase diversity on campus to combat Machine influence and pressure the University to acknowledge the existence of the Machine. 
  • Elliot Spillers was elected the first African American SGA president at the University of Alabama in nearly 40 years, making him the first non-Machine candidate to win the position since 1986. 
  • Alex Smith, an SGA senator for the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, wrote an editorial for The Crimson White about her decision to stop working with the Machine.

2017

  • Jared Hunter was elected SGA president, making him the first African American student to win the position with the support of The Machine.

2018

  • AL.com launched a podcast called “Greek Gods” that focused on the history of the Machine and its ties to the Student Government Association and politics in Alabama.

To view the full timeline, check out page 12 of Horizons, our digital magazine for new students.