Over the past 30 years, the Machine — a secret society at the University of Alabama — has been suspected in cross burnings, election interference, and physical assaults on students. One former student blames the Machine for putting her under so much mental duress she was forced to transfer schools.
The 100-year-old organisation has been the subject of many profiles and exposés, including a now-notorious 1992 Esquire cover story. According to Esquire, the Machine started out as a chapter of the Theta Nu Epsilon fraternity, which “believed that secrecy guaranteed selfless leadership. Logos showed a group of devils in hell, with flames licking around them. The fraternity’s rites instilled secrecy with medieval earnestness.”
At UA, the fraternity became known as “The Machine” — a reference to its methodical ability to routinely elect its own candidate to Student Government Association President. Its influence quickly expanded, and for a while the Machine was the primary vehicle for success in Alabama politics.
A Machine pamphlet from 1989 states:
One standard we base our membership on is the future usefulness of newcomers to our union and its members. We are proud of our history at the University. Theta Nu Epsilon has elected an SGA president 68 times in the 75 years of the SGA’s existence. This is because the SGA is ours. Our brethren formed it in 1914.
Throughout its history, the Machine has garnered a reputation as an exclusively white advocacy group on a campus that has a troubled racial history. Spurred on by last month’s fantastic look into segregation in the University of Alabama Greek system from student newspaper the Crimson White, we’ve researched the secret organisation that may or may not be responsible for maintaining the school’s racial divide.
Here are 10 stories that will show you how an all-white secret society has allegedly controlled the University of Alabama for decades:
1976 — Students Burn Crosses After A Black Candidate Wins SGA President
Cleo Thomas was the first — and remains the only — black candidate to win the SGA presidency, organising a coalition of independents, black students, and white sorority members to beat the 1976 Machine candidate.
After Thomas was elected, the Crimson White reported “As many as 15 men cloaked in white sheets burned crosses, threw bottles and chanted various revolutionary tunes Thursday night in what some say was reaction to the election of the university’s first black SGA president, Cleo Thomas.” An eight-foot-tall cross was burned in front of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house.
In response to Thomas’ victory, the Machine radically changed the makeup of its group. Realising that sororities were a growing political threat, the Machine invited in Greek women for the first time, and extended membership to more fraternities to offset independent students’ voting power.
1983 — The FBI Investigate An Independent Candidate’s Home Phone Being Tapped
The FBI was called to Alabama in 1983 after newly-elected SGA President John Bolus — an independent — discovered that his home phone was tapped.
Bolus’ roommate had found a phone cord attached to an outside box. “At the end of the wire was a jack that could be plugged into a tape recorder. There were beer cans all around,” Bolus told the Crimson White.
Two students confessed to the FBI and the UA administration.
1986 — The Machine Breaks Into An Independent SGA Candidate’s Office
Three years after Bolus’ phone was tapped, independent candidate John Merrill had his office broken into, allegedly by two members of a Machine fraternity. Both of the students Merrill discovered in his office were allegedly associated with the campaign of the Machine candidate for SGA president.
The Machine candidate — who Merrill would go on to beat in the election — said that one of the students caught “just got a little excited and wanted so badly for me to win that he just got out of hand and made a mistake.”
Additionally, one member of Merrill’s campaign was allegedly beaten outside of an UA dormitory and hospitalized for rib injuries, while another was supposedly run off the road while driving to campus. Merrill’s wife also allegedly recieved rape threats.
1989 — Greeks Force A Local Pizza Chain To Close
Popular Tuscaloosa eatery Bama-Bino Pizza was forced to close after the owner’s son — an independant — ran for SGA president in 1989, causing Greeks to boycott the restaurant. Joey Viselli almost beat the Machine-backed candidate in what is considered a notoriously corrupt election year.
Viselli also faced threats of violence during the campaign, he told the Crimson White. “A couple of people jumped one of my campaign workers at his apartment. My mother was threatened in an extreme amount. We had bomb threats,” he said.
“His daddy must have been dumb not to realise, ‘Hey son, donʹt be stirring the waters up,'” one fraternity member later told Esquire.
1993 — Candidate Running Against The Machine Attacked With A Knife
In 1993, Minda Riley — a Greek candidate for SGA president not endorsed by the Machine — was assaulted in her home by knife-wielding man with panty hose stretched over his head to hide his face. The attack left her with “a golf-ball-size bruise on her cheek, a busted lip, and a knife wound on the side of her face,” the Crimson White reported.
According to the student paper, Riley’s brother — who in 1987 had been the Machine-backed SGA president — said he had “no doubt” the Machine or a Machine-backed candidate was responsible for the assault.
This was hardly the first time the candidate had been threatened. According to a profile of Riley in People magazine, “Over Thanksgiving a cross had been burned into her front lawn, accompanied by two notes left in her mailbox. ‘Tonight crossbones burn, the next time your skeleton head will burn,’ the identical notes read on one side. ‘Machine rules, bitch,’ they said on the other.”
Following the attacks on Riley, the University of Alabama administration suspended the SGA until 1996.
1999 — Machine Suspected In Racial Threats Against Black SGA Candidate
Three years after the SGA returned to campus, Fabien Zinga-Kanza, a black student who ran for president as an independent, was the target of racial threats, which he blamed on the Machine. Racial graffiti appeared on Zinga’s campaign posters, and the candidate himself recieved late night phone calls from an anonymous male using racial slurs, according to CNN.
“What I vividly remember is when he says ‘We are going to hang you from the tree,'” Zinga told CNN.
According to the Crimson White, these racist actions were “taken by many as proof that Zinga-Kanza posed a real threat to taking the coveted SGA presidential throne.”
2001 — Machine Supposedly Keeps A Black Student From Joining A White Sorority Two Years In A Row
In 2o0o and 2001, UA student Melody Twilley attempted to become the first black student knowingly admitted by a white sorority. Her uniform rejections both years from the white sororities were supposedly orchestrated by the Machine.
“‘The Machine’ is the linear successor to [former Alabama governor George Wallace], who proclaimed during his 1963 inaugural address: ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,'” USA Today wrote in 2001.
Twilley’s situation was high-profile enough to attract the attention of the United States government, although no action was taken against the alleged discrimination. The then-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights told USA Today, “I’m sympathetic, but with everything else that is going on, it’s not really a major priority given what else we have on our plate concerning discrimination in our society.”
2003 — Machine Offers Membership To A Less-Prominent Sorority If They Accept A Black Student
The admission of a black female student into an all-white sorority in 2003 was a cause for celebration for many, as it was seen as the beginning of the end to a segregated system. However, Carla Ferguson’s bid to Gamma Phi Beta was tainted by allegations that the Machine coerced the sorority into accepting her in order to dispel racist associations with the group, according to the Crimson White.
A former Gamma Phi member told the Crimson White that the Machine promised the sorority a spot in the secret organisation, and that only the 10 members of the executive board were allowed to vote on Ferguson. These charges were adamantly denied by the sorority.
According to one comment on a Greek message board, “The Machine is getting sick of everyone telling them how racist they are, so they decided to de-segregate the sorority system this year. However, none of the ‘top’ chapters wanted to risk their reputations by bidding an African-American, so they wanted one of the not so prestigious sororities to do instead. They promised Gamma Phi entrance into the Machine as a bribe, which would theoretically raise their social standing on campus.”
2004 — Machine Sorority Member Is Allegedly Threatened When She Runs For SGA Without The Group’s Permission
In 2004, freshman Emeline Aviki — a member of a Machine-associated sorority — decided to run for an SGA position without the secret organisation’s backing. Aviki told the Crimson White she recieved multiple threats after she decided to run, including being told, “‘You f*cked up the day you started thinking against us.'”
Aviki recounted her first experience with the group to the Crimson White, saying, “After you pledge, the Machine rep tells you the gist of the Machine and comes out and says, ‘You do what we say or else. You don’t want to mess with us.'”
She said that at one point her house’s Machine representative told the other sorority members that Aviki’s life was in danger. Aviki eventually transferred to Duke University after her freshman year, citing “emotional and psychological toll” from the campaign.
2013 — Lawsuit Alleges Machine Involvement In Local City Election
The Machine’s influence is not just limited to the UA campus. The New York Times reported last month that a losing candidate for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education filed a lawsuit after a SGA president and Machine candidate was elected on a wave of Greek voting.
UA sorority members were offered free drinks and limo rides if they voted in the City Board of Education elections, according to an email sent out to at least one sorority. Members were encouraged to vote for former SGA president Cason Kirby and fellow UA alumnus Lee Garrison, both of whom ended up winning their respective district.
Local news reported that some Greeks listed their fraternity house as their residence to vote in Kirby’s district, even though they no longer lived there.
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