"UA's Machine produced many political figures" Steve Flowers The Atmore Advance December 19, 2007
Many of you found last week's column on the Machine at the University of Alabama interesting and intriguing. The Machine, as mentioned last week, is a cadre of campus leaders who are members of Greek fraternities and sororities at the University. It is a farm club system where those who aspire to public service or politics get their training. This system has spawned many of the state's leaders for over a century.
When I entered the University of Alabama in the fall of 1969 the majority of our congressional delegation, as well as both of our legendary U.S. Senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman, were Machine alumni. The list of Machine alumni is long and prestigious. In addition to Hill and Sparkman several of our legendary Washington solons, John Bankhead, Howell Heflin, and our current senior Senator Richard Shelby, were Machine members. Congressmen Jack Edwards, Walter Flowers, Carl Elliott, Albert Rains, and William Dickinson were all Machine members, just to name a few. The legendary Birmingham politician, Albert Boutwell, was a Machine man. Recent gubernatorial candidates Bill Baxley and Don Siegelman were also Machine members.
Bill Baxley's closest ally at the Capstone was named Julian Butler. Butler is now a prominent lawyer in Huntsville and Baxley practices law in Birmingham. When they were at the University in the early 1960's all offices at the University were elected and all were controlled by the Machine, including homecoming queen, all student senate seats, and president of the student body. At that time there was also a Cotillion Club and the Cotillion Club president was also elected. Baxley and Butler, who were best buddies even back then, would not run against each other. So one night they met privately to decide which office they would each run for. Baxley gave Butler first choice and of course Butler chose president of the student body which was the most prestigious. However, Baxley craftily preferred Cotillion president because at that time the Cotillion president got a cut of all the entertainment brought to campus. Baxley, being somewhat of an entrepreneur, brought in the greatest bands of that era including the Temptations, Supremes, and Four Tops. It was rumored he made about $30,000 that year as a college senior, more than most of the professors on campus at that time. Butler became SGA president and made nothing. They remained friends and Butler ran all of Baxley's campaigns for attorney general, lieutenant governor, and governor.
Many Machine members continued on to the political stage but most moved on to be powers behind the throne, as lawyers and businessmen. Many of the most prestigious law firms in Birmingham are laden with Machine members. Tommy Wells, a partner in a powerful Birmingham law firm, was president of the SGA and a Machine member. He is currently serving as president of the American Bar Association. Two of the current CEOs of Birmingham's biggest businesses were both Kappa Alphas at the same time and were prominent Machine members, Don Jones, CEO of Vulcan Materials, and Johnny Johns, CEO of Protective Life, were active Machine members at Alabama.
A prime example of choosing to wield considerable power behind the scenes is Bill Blount, a former SGA president, Machine alumnus, and Montgomery investment banker. Blount also served as Chairman of the Democratic Party for awhile. Other examples are two of Montgomery's most prominent lawyers, Oakley Melton and Joe Espy, who are Machine alumni and law partners. Joe Espy was president of the SGA. He is currently a member of the University Board of Trustees and wields as much power behind the scenes as anybody in Alabama currently.
Veteran State Senator Roger Bedford from Russellville is without a doubt one of the five most influential members of the legislature. He was a very active machine member while at the University of Alabama. In fact, he had not been out of campus political training but a few years when he arrived as a state senator.
As stated last week, although the Machine has been cloaked in secrecy and mysticism for over a century it is a living breathing entity which breeds state politicians and leaders in law and business in Alabama. So in closing, "Yes Virginia there is a political Machine at the University of Alabama.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.