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When Elliot Spillers decided to run for president of the Student Government Association at the University of Alabama, his parents had a piece of advice: Don’t run.
Like many young people, Spillers didn’t listen to his parents. He ran anyway – three times.
His tenacity paid off. On March 10, he became the first African-American in nearly 40 years to ever hold the office.
The victory is especially sweet on a campus that hosted one of the most dramatic desegregation standoffs in American history. In June 1963, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace famously stood in front of the schoolhouse doors to stop two black students from registering at the school. It wasn’t until the Alabama National Guard showed up that Wallace stepped aside and allowed the students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, to enroll.
The historical significance of his win is not lost on Spillers.
“It’s symbolic to me as an African-American male because, at that time, I couldn’t even come here,” he said. “I wasn’t even welcome to step foot on this campus."
Spillers’ win is historical in another way too: He’s the first candidate since 1986 to defeat what’s known as "the Machine," a century-old secret society comprised of traditionally white fraternities and sororities on the UA campus.
The Machine’s influence on elections, both on and off campus, is widely acknowledged. It’s also considered a training ground for aspiring Alabama politicians, says Steve Flowers, a former Machine member.
“When I was a young boy and I arrived at the University of Alabama in 1970, we had nine members of Congress from Alabama,” Flowers said. “Eight of the nine had come through the Machine. Both of our U.S. senators were Machine alumni.”
Flowers, who spent 16 years in the state legislature before becoming a political analyst, says the route to a life in political office began with the friendships made within the Machine.
“We learned politics,” he said. “We assumed one of us would be running for governor and the other would be running for Congress 10 years down the road.” He added: “We went downstairs together, we made political deals.”
“Going downstairs” refers to how Machine members would go to the basements of fraternities to decide who will run for which campus office, Flowers says. He said he made several trips downstairs.
“We learned from each other,” he said. “We got to know each other.”
Flowers admitted that the Machine was UA’s version of an old-boys club, but one that wasn’t racist when he was there.
“There was no animosity toward African-American people in my fraternity,” he said. “We were all white anyway. Everyone in school was white.”
He also believes Spillers’ win shows the Machine is losing steam, and becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Tuscaloosa resident Kelly Horwitz would disagree.
Drinks for votes
Just days before the Tuscaloosa school board election in 2013, Horwitz, the incumbent, received a concerning email from a UA sorority member.
The email said that sorority and fraternity members were being offered free drinks at local bars if they voted for Horwitz’s opponent, a former student government president.
Then, on Election Day, her campaign workers took photos of limousines arriving at polling stations, delivering UA students. The Machine, Horwitz says, had hired them to bring voters from their houses half a mile away to the polling station.
“I was very frustrated,” she said. “We knew that this was the Machine at work.”
Horwitz lost the election by 87 votes. Convinced this was voter fraud orchestrated by the Machine, she sued, challenging the results of the election. A judge dismissed the lawsuit but it’s now up on appeal.
Horwitz’s school board run wasn’t the first time the Machine had been accused of getting involved in elections beyond the UA campus. In 1997, when Tuscaloosa resident Don Brown lost his bid for city council, he too blamed voter fraud and sued. His case eventually went to trial, where a judge agreed dozens of votes were fraudulent, but it wasn’t enough to sway the election’s outcome.
Horwitz says that is the reality when it comes to elections in Tuscaloosa. But she hopes the election of Spillers is a sign the tide is turning, at least on the UA campus.
“I think this generation has to make a decision whether or not to commit to the ideals of democracy,” she said. “And I hope it’s a message they learn from.”
A new era
Spillers thinks change is indeed coming to campus, and he says demographics may be playing a role. Over half of the student body population is now from outside of Alabama, bringing in diverse ideas and viewpoints.
That certainly played a role last fall when, due in part to student protests, traditionally all white sororities accepted 21 black girls as pledges.
One of them was Elliot’s girlfriend. He says she helped win over sorority voters.
“The majority has spoken and we are progressing,” he said. “You can either jump on the bandwagon or not.”
In a twist of fate, the man who stood to stop students like Spillers from enrolling more than 50 years ago also had something in common with him. As a student, Wallace also ran for student body president against the Machine. But unlike Spillers, he lost.
“Right now, we are in a new era on this campus,” he said. “Our entire campus culture is shifting now and it’s because of that I was elected.”