Secret society dips to in city politics, prompting lawsuit
Nowadays, Flowers said, there are not many Machine alumni in the state Legislature and almost none in Washington.
According to current and former members of Machine-affiliated Greek organizations, each of the 28 fraternities and sororities associated with the Machine (many Greek organizations on campus are not) sends a pair of representatives to a secret group, often referred to as "going downstairs," because the group meets in the basement of a fraternity house. Members decide which candidates to back for student government, homecoming queen and several honor societies. The fraternity-and-sorority rank and file are informed of the choices and put into action on Election Day. Their choices rarely lose.
Accounts of intimidation tactics attributed to the Machine over the decades include cross burnings, threats and boycotts, although students these days speak mostly of social pressure, both implicit and overt and at times intense. Despite changes that the university has made to student government - like expanding polling days and switching to online voting - and despite the fact that Machine-affiliated organizations account for less than one-third of Alabama’s student population, its candidates have continued to win, if not as decisively as in the past.
"There is a lot of apathy," said Kendra Key, who in 2009 came within a few hundred votes of being the first black woman to be student government president. Students, she said, "feel the Greek system is going to dominate the elections, so why even waste the effort?"
When the Machine has faltered, it has adjusted. Cleophus Thomas Jr. beat a Machine candidate to become Alabama’s first black student government president in 1976, in large part because of the votes of sorority members. Not long after, sororities were allowed into the Machine for the first time. There have been few non-Machine presidents, and no black presidents, since.
The intersection between the Machine and race is complicated. Key suggested that the marginalization of black student representation was largely a byproduct; the Machine represents a white bloc in a historically segregated Greek system, so its success inevitably means white control. But others say race is more central to the Machine and have tied the election controversy to the storm that arose last week when The Crimson White, the student newspaper, reported that a superbly qualified black woman had failed to receive a single bid from Alabama’s traditionally white sororities.
"They all seem of a piece to me," said Stacy Morgan, an American studies professor who has begun pushing, with other faculty members, for comprehensive changes to address campus-election procedures and the segregation of student organizations. "It’s a kind of exclusiveness, a kind of insularity."
Thomas, now a lawyer in Anniston, Ala., and a former university trustee, agrees. Like many alumni, he was not surprised by the revelations about segregation on campus. But he found the Machine’s troubled run in municipal politics remarkable indeed.
"They’re usually much more sophisticated than that," he said. "This may be the ineptness that results from having no real competition."