Top SGA offices at Alabama eluding minorities
By AMANDA THOMAS
Associated Press Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As they have for more than three decades, students arrived at the University of Alabama for a new school year with a white president of the Student Government Association - and a sense among some that change may finally be at hand.
Other historically white Southern universities - among them Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Florida State, South Carolina, Mississippi and Mississippi State - have had minority student presidents in the last decade, according to the American Student Government Association.
At 'Bama, however, where George Wallace made his "stand in the schoolhouse door" for racial segregation in 1963, no black has won the presidency since Cleophus Thomas Jr. in 1976.
Kendra Key, a black candidate who narrowly lost the SGA presidency this year, 7,323 votes to 7,062, said a record 53 percent turnout in the spring election signals that the next wave of SGA officers may be more diverse.
"Those who aspire to hold executive office on campus should see this as a ray of hope and an example of the possible," she said.
Key, like others on campus, said the difficulties of minority candidates stem not from racism but from tradition: a fraternity culture that whites dominate and a secretive and influential group called "the Machine."
"Our university is deeply rooted in tradition, and traditionally, the vast majority of the student population has not seen the importance of voting and the role that the SGA plays or can play in their collegiate careers," Key said.
She said her staff worked hard to make sure the campaign was not based on race and hopes that will be reflected in the campaign's legacy.
The Machine, a coalition of all-white Greek organizations that has largely controlled campus politics for a century, in recent decades has focused on developing university political leaders from fraternity and sorority pledges and then turning out the vote.
Nearly a century ago, in 1914, a student named Lister Hill turned the Machine into a statewide political force of national Democratic Party loyalists opposing more conservative candidates. Hill, who later became a U.S. senator, won the SGA presidency and spawned a succession of progressive Alabama politicians who got their start as campus leaders, including U.S. Sen. John Sparkman and, later, U.S. District Judge Robert Vance and Gov. Don Siegelman.
In establishing a network that would hang together and have political impact after leaving college, "It was almost like he consciously created something comparable to Skull and Bones at Yale," said Redding Pitt, an SGA leader at Alabama in the 1960s and later state Democratic Party chairman.
In the late 1960s, he said, the campus got more conservative and the Machine "had no political mission beyond campus politics."
John Merrill, who in 1986 became the last independent to buck the Machine and win the SGA presidency, said it is unique in the region.
"There is no institution in the South where (an organization like) the Machine is as strong as it is on the campus of UA," he said. "Creating a significant bloc vote is something that is difficult to overcome if you're not well-organized."
SGA president Steven Oliver, who defeated Key, agreed with her view that the election wasn't about race. He said voting was based on the qualifications of each candidate.
"It isn't based on the color of their skin," Oliver said. "The SGA is here for all students and we embrace diversity on campus."
The SGA's executive branch is made up of seven elected offices, including president. Lorraine Erhunmwunsee, a black student, was elected executive secretary in an unopposed election in 2001, and there have been several appointed minorities since 1996, when elections were resumed after a three-year hiatus. But no minority running against a white candidate has won.
The student paper, The Crimson White, has reported that at least 17 minority students have run for various executive SGA offices, some multiple times, during the last 14 elections. Every one of them lost.
Thomas, the lone black who was elected president in 1976, later served on the university's board of trustees. But no other blacks, and few non-Machine candidates, have won since.
An attack on an independent candidate for president - no one was ever charged - prompted the school to suspend SGA elections in 1993 for three years.
Gentry McCreary, director of Greek affairs, declined comment on the Machine's role on campus.
Jimmy Williams, associate dean for multicultural affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he does not believe the university is more racially divided than other Southern campuses and notes that the SGA collaborates with many student organizations, including the Black Student Union and NAACP.
"UA is one of the top five public flagship universities in the nation in the enrollment of African-American students, with African-Americans representing 11.3 percent of the student body," Williams said.
UA student Alan Blinder, who wrote a column in The Birmingham News last March about the Machine's role in perpetuating white domination of student government, said he feels "a number of students are naive and fail to do their homework on SGA candidates. A lot seem to vote for whomever they are told to vote for."
Like Key, he feels the tradition may change.
"The SGA reintroduced online voting this year, and there was a massive increase in voter turnout," he said. "Students who are not strongly encouraged to vote - as many students in the Greek system are - are much more willing to vote when they can do it from their own dorm room."
UA student James Jones said he believes the university is racially divided and the SGA is racially biased toward whites, thanks to the Machine.
"I'm ready for this 'Machine' to fall because it's probably been going on for far too long," he said.
Associated Press writer Kendal Weaver in Montgomery contributed to this report.