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The Machine, the former Alpha Rho chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon at the University of Alabamamarker, is a coalition of traditionally-white fraternities and sororities which formed a secret society with some degree of influence over campus and Alabama state politics. The group, which has operated in varying degrees of secrecy since 1914, is credited with selecting and ensuring the election of candidates for Student Government Association and other influential on-campus and off-campus offices. It was dubbed "The Machine" in 1928 by Alabama's campus newspaper, The Crimson White,. It plays a role in the politics of the student community, and it is argued by others that it plays a real role in the political careers of numerous politicians in the state.


The Alpha Rho Chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon was founded at the University of Alabama in 1888. For 21 years the chapter operated and its biggest function on campus was an annual promenade.

The Alpha Rho Chapter was illegitimately founded; it was a chapter formed without formal permission of the society. In 1902, it contacted governing authority of the society, the Alpha Chapter at Wesleyan University, and was accepted as a legitimate chapter. As a legitimate chapter, it was accepted by the administration and university community, and in 1905, the chapter hosted its first annual promenade, which was a successful public event. In 1909, on February 14, The Alpha Rho Chapter created a new society, this one for members of the senior class, called The Skulls. The Skulls replaced the Theta Nu Epsilon chapter. Both the earlier and later organizations were publicly recognized by the university, and appeared each year in the university yearbook.

In 1914, Lister Hill, as a member of The Skulls, is claimed by many to have put the modern politically-active Machine together and used its influence to become the first president of the Student Government Association. (He later became a United States Senator.) Many articles state that Hill founded the organization, although it clearly predated him. Possibly his later fame made it seem he originated the organization. (What role The Skulls had on campus from 1909 to 1914 is not currently known). However, after that and continuing until now, the Machine has formed a voting block with a number of fraternities and sororities, and the presumptive reason for the organization is to control student-body wide elections to offices in the university Student Government Association, (SGA). One reason for high student interest in the SGA and The Machine is that the SGA Presidency at the University of Alabama has been an effective stepping stone into state politics and controls a significant student activities budget.

The Skulls was considered a legitimate student group until 1922. The organization officially ceased to exist at that time, although there seems to have been a near immediate recreation as The Machine.

Since the inception of student government, only seven candidates have succeeded in winning the SGA Presidency without support from the Machine. These include Carl Elliott, 1936; Donald W. Stewart, 1963; Don Siegal, 1964; Jim Zeigler, 1971; Cleo Thomas, 1976; John Bolus, 1983; and John H. Merrill, 1986. Don Siegal is often confused with Don Siegelman, who was a Machine member, SGA President in 1968 and later Alabama governor.

One anti-Machine candidate who could not be elected at UA managed to do better in state politics -- George C. Wallace, Sr., governor and perennial United States presidential candidate. It is said that the current governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, was a member of the Machine while at the University of Alabama.

Esquire magazine devoted its April 1992 cover story to an exposé of the Machine.

Machine opposition

Over the years, numerous campus political groups have been formed in an attempt to motivate independent students to vote for non-Machine candidates.

The University Party was formed by Ed Still and Jack Drake in 1967. Drake lost the SGA Presidency to Ralph Knowles and Still lost to Joe Espy. Independent Jim LaMoreaux defeated Eddie Friend for vice-president.

An anti-machine group called "The Coalition" formed in 1968 and operated through 1972. This was a joint effort by the men's dormitories, small non-machine fraternities, International Students Association, women students, and the Afro-American Association. It was formed by Steve Windom (later Lt. Governor), Tommy Chapman (later District Attorney), Steve "Red" Wadlington (later political campaign operative), Don Gilbert (later head of Alabama Trial Lawyers Association) and Jim Zeigler (later Public Service Commissioner). The Coalition succeeded in 1969 in electing Joe Estep as vice-president over the Machine's George Culver. It elected Henry Agee as secretary-treasurer over the Machine's Phil Reich. In 1970 it elected Zeigler as president of SGA as an independent. It also elected Windom to the Student Senate and almost 40% of the Student Senate in 1970-71.

Another anti-Machine group was the Alabama Student Party (ASP), which was founded by SGA Senators Fred L. Gibson, Jr. and O. Kevin Vincent in 1985. ASP intended to run a full slate of independent candidates, but its efforts were temporarily thwarted when the Machine orchestrated a takeover of ASP by flooding its first general campus meeting at Ferguson Center with fraternity pledges and members and electing Neal Orr, a freshman member of a fraternity that belonged to the Machine, as its president. Orr's fraternity was also the fraternity of the then SGA President, George Harris 1985. Control of ASP was then subsequently retaken by independents later in the year and played a pivotal role as a force for independents in upcoming elections. ASP successfully challenged the Machine with the election of John Merrill, an independent, as President in 1986, as well as a number of SGA Senators. Interestingly, Merrill was opposed by the Machine when he ran for SGA Senator, had been backed by the Machine for Vice President in 1985, and was then opposed by the Machine for President in 1986.

The Alabama Student Party subsequently was involved in the Federal Court Case of Alabama Student Party v. Student Government Association of the University of Alabama, 867 F.2d 1344, 51 Ed. Law Rep. 1169 (11th Cir. 1989).

Another group actively countering the Machine's domination of campus politics was the Independent Voter Association.

The Mallet Assembly, a men's honors program founded by Dean of Men John Blackburn in the early 1960s, is traditionally opposed to Machine influence, and has campaigned for several candidates under the banner of the "Blue Door Party". Jim Zeigler, who defeated The Machine in 1970 for SGA President, was a member of the Mallet Assembly and actually lived in old Mallet Hall, where his room was burned in 1971. Cleo Thomas, the only black SGA President in the University's history, was a member of the Mallet Assembly.

More recently, a student group called CapstonePAC has formed with the intention of running issue-based campaigns on the model of Political Action Committees.

Allegations of intimidation by the Machine include the 1971 arson of the dormitory room of Jim Zeigler, a successful non-Machine candidate for SGA President, and alleged wire-taps on the telephone of victorious opposition candidate John Bolus in 1983. Another winning opposition candidate, John Merrill, reported harassing phone calls and alleged that his car tires emptied. He claims to have caught a group of students attempting to enter his SGA office (Merrill was at the time the Machine-backed Vice President). The suspects were photographed during the incident by the Crimson White and Merrill narrowly won a run-off.

The most controversial election took place in 1976 when Cleo Thomas, an African-American student and member of the historically black Fraternity was elected to the SGA Presidency with the support of the Mallet Assembly and a coalition of several sororities. During the campaign, multiple sorority members alleged harassment, and a cross was burned on the lawn of the sorority.. Following the election, sororities were admitted to the Machine for the first time. In 1979, the Machine weathered an internal disagreement which resulted in the resignation of three fraternities who ran their own candidates.

In 1989, independent Joey Viselli lost a very close election for president to a candidate who was reportedly the first ever Machine-backed female candidate for the office. Many people, including Tuscaloosa County election workers assisting with the election, believed there were definite irregularities. Viselli took a challenge of the results to the administration, which ruled against a new election, but did remove future student elections from student control. Viselli's father Fran was a popular community figure who was the founder and owner of Bama-Bino's Pizza in the Tuscaloosa area. It has been widely believed that the Machine initiated a retaliatory boycott against Bama-Bino's following the election which, when combined with new competition, soon led to the closure of all Bama-Bino's.

1992 and suspension of the SGA

In 1992, Phi Mu sorority member Minda Riley (daughter of current Governor Bob Riley) ran against Machine-backed candidate and Beta Theta Pi fraternity member Neil Duthie. In that election, Minda Riley made claims of harassment and physical assault, even though she belonged to a Machine-aligned sorority. Although her claims of alleged harassment and physical assault were never verified and remain unproven, the University nevertheless suspended the Student Government Association altogether, and did not reinstitute it until 1996. Minda Riley's brother Rob Riley was elected president of the SGA as a Machine candidate.

In 1999 African American Fabien Zinga-Kanza, a candidate for the SGA presidency, claimed that he was personally threatened and that his campaign signs were defaced. CNN covered the story, with references to the alleged history of intimidation attributed to the Machine.

Prior to the 2002 SGA election, the phrase "Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine" from Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" was chalked on the outer wall of the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library. This caused a group of students, calling themselves "The Counter-friction", to interrupt then university president Andrew Sorenson's epidemiology class while chanting words of protest against The Machine.

Internet voting debuted in 2003, but the results were ruled invalid after allegations of fraud and the election was repeated with paper ballots the following week. During the next election in 2004 SGA senate candidate Emily Aviki detailed alleged harassment that she claimed she received for the Crimson White, which used it for an exposé entitled "You don't want to mess with us." Though her campaign was successful, Aviki transferred to Duke Universitymarker.

For the past five years, there has been a professedly neutral website which posts archival articles and clippings online. The site does not editorialize. The existence of the site itself attests to the interest the existence of this organization has generated.

Prominent members who later became politicians

Lister Hill, John Sparkman and Donald Stewart became U.S. Senators.

Don Siegelman became Secretary of State, Attorney General, Lt. Governor and Governor.

Carl Elliot, Jack Edwards, and Walter Flowers became Congressmen.

George Lewis Bailes became a State Senator.

Robert Smith Vance served as Chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, then became a federal judge who served on the U. S. Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit.

Bill Blount became Chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party.

Tommy Wells became President of the American Bar Association.

See also


  1. T.N.E. Dance, The Crimson White, March 7, 1905
  2. 1910 University of Alabama Corolla, pg. 272
  4. Esquire, April 1992
  5. Crimson White Article '79
  6. Esquire, April 1992

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