"Machine candidates dominate student government" Lydia Seabol The Tuscaloosa News April 17, 2006
The mere mention of the University of Alabama Student Government Association might bring to mind words like power, scandal and The Machine. It has been written about in publications across the country and is commonly known as the training ground for future leaders of the state.
And yet, when it began at the turn of the 20th century, it was responding to the need for students to help govern themselves, not a glimmering hope of state power.
In 1911, UA student Thomas Skillet wrote in the Crimson White that a man old enough to go to college was old enough to govern himself. He said that student self-government was “a training in the democratic principle of statesmanship."
Since the 1860s, the campus had been run by a military system, something that was hated by students in the early 1900s, said Marion Pearson, historian and curator of the Gorgas House. In 1902, UA President John Abercrombie abolished the military system, placing discipline in the hands of the faculty with the goal of letting the students self-govern.
The early SGA
The first student government officers were elected by 1909, and an honor code was adopted in 1910. But it wasn’t until 1914 that the precursor to today’s SGA was formed.
That year, students drafted a new constitution for a central student government that would subordinate all student activities. The organization was led by its first president, Lister Hill, who would later become a longtime U.S. senator for the state.
The SGA’s legacy as a stepping-stone for state leaders began with its first presidency, Pearson said. Since Hill, people such as former Gov. Don Siegelman, former Gov. George Wallace and countless other representatives, judges and local leaders either ran or served in an SGA office.
“It’s been a training ground for leaders from the very beginning," Pearson said. “I think you can say that the SGA has done a pretty good job of it."
In its early days, the SGA primarily oversaw the university’s honor code. In the 1920s, freshman were required to wear green caps in public so they wouldn’t be hazed. If a freshman was found without his hat, he would be fined by the SGA.
The honor code was more strict for the female students, who had to be in their dormitory at 10:45 p.m. The number of nights that female students could go on dates was limited, depending on their year in school. Female freshmen were forbidden to go riding in a car at night with men, but upperclassmen could go riding as long as it was within the city limits. If not driving, women could walk on campus until 7:30 p.m. They also had to submit an itinerary of their plans at all times. If they broke the rules, they would have to report to the SGA and its women’s council.
Corruption was rare during the SGA’s first years. Usually, campaigns were quick, with fraternities, sororities and other organizations working hard to promote their chosen candidates, according to “The History of The University of Alabama, Vol. II," by James Sellers. But competition for the coveted SGA positions heated the SGA races.
In 1932, two candidates for the Honor Committee were accused of buying votes by promising to overlook honor system violations, and, in 1934, one candidate was shot and another kidnapped.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the SGA’s constitution was revised several times. By 1958, the SGA’s strict enforcement of the honor system was largely dropped. But struggles for power and the SGA’s most coveted offices continued.
SGA and The Machine
Part of the reason for the SGA’s power, some suggest, is The Machine. In 1928, editors at the Crimson White dubbed a group of select fraternities and sororities “The Machine" for its efficiency in getting its Greek candidates elected.
According to Wikipedia, The Machine was once a local chapter of the fraternity Theta Nu Epsilon, formed in 1888, and possibly had its origins with Yale University’s Skulls and Bones.
Many students believe that fraternities and sororities have representatives that meet secretively, sometimes referred to as “downstairs," to select their chosen candidates for SGA office, discuss SGA policy and even choose candidates for homecoming queen and honor societies. Each sorority and fraternity Machine “rep" reportedly remains anonymous to fraternity brothers or sorority sisters.
When election time comes, members are told to vote for the selected Machine candidates.
In the SGA’s 92-year history, only seven independent candidates have reportedly won its presidency, including Cleo Thomas. In 1976, he was elected as the SGA’s first and only black president.
Before that election, The Machine did not endorse women as candidates. In 1976, sororities revolted against the underground organization and backed Thomas. During the election, a cross was burned on the lawn of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house.
The last independent candidate to win the coveted SGA presidency was John Merrill, who was elected in 1986. Merrill said that he won the election because of the strong student backing he had, including the support of student athletes. But, during the campaign, he faced adversity from The Machine candidates, including having his SGA office broken into.
“There were threats to me, threats to my wife. We had air let out of our tires, had phone calls in the middle of the night -- just a lot of different things like that, annoyances really," Merrill said. “It was an interesting time."
During the 1990s, the scandal continued to swirl around the SGA elections. In 1993, Minda Riley, daughter of Gov. Bob Riley and sister of previous Machine-supported SGA president Rob Riley, was threatened and attacked after running against a Machine candidate for SGA president.
She survived, but suffered a busted lip, a knife wound on the side of her face and a bruised cheek.
Her brother, Rob Riley, told the Crimson White that he had no doubt that the Machine or a Machine-backed candidate was responsible for the assault.
Because of Minda Riley’s attack, the SGA was disbanded for three years.
The modern SGA
Since the SGA restarted in 1996, it has made strides on campus and in the community. Even before its disbandment, it helped bring the university’s recreation center to campus, supported the construction of the Riverside Ampitheater and the Presidential Pavilion and brought about the plus/minus grading system during the 1980s, Merrill said.
While the organization still centers on the students, it also works with the city, county and state to try to push forward initiatives that are important to students, like campus safety and transportation. SGA initiatives have included working with the city to help strengthen the use of the trolleys on campus and sponsoring debates during municipal elections and discussions on topics like diversity.
The SGA’s latest effort, SGA President Justice Smyth said, is to revamp its committee system so that anyone can participate in the SGA. This year, anybody who applied for a committee was accepted. More than 300 people are currently involved with the SGA and its committees.
“We’ve been trying to get a lot more inclusion and try to get rid of the stereotype that not everybody has been involved with the SGA," Smyth said.
One of the things that he said is holding the SGA back is talk of The Machine.
Mary Margaret Carroll, who served as SGA president before Smyth, admitted in February that she had been part of The Machine. It was the first time in 10 years that any Machine candidate or representative had publicly admitted its existence.
“The whole dialogue of The Machine is something we’ve really worked hard to overcome," Smyth said.
“We want to prove to students that we are looking after everyone. But when someone gets labeled as a Machine candidate or non-Machine candidate, it further sends out stereotypes. It distracts people from the real issues, whether it’s student health, recreation or transportation."
Smyth also said that although today’s SGA is shadowed with a troubled past, it is trying to move forward and make a new name for itself.
“The SGA, while it has had some troubles in the past, it has passed that and has moved on," he said.