In August 2021, #BamaRush was all over TikTok, gaining national attention for the cute #OOTDs, the $500 pre-scuffed sneakers, and, of course, the drama. It was no wonder, then, that more media attention would follow, leading to the upcoming and highly anticipated documentary on Max, Bama Rush.
If you simply can’t wait to sink your teeth into the scandalous, glittery world of sorority recruitment, I invite you to whet your appetite with a few other texts in the meantime.
First course: MACHINE: Vivat Apparatus by Becky Beamer.
The documentary premiered last fall at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, and I was bummed when I realized that I would miss it due to a previously planned trip out of town. I messaged the filmmaker about other screenings and was delighted when Beamer messaged me in April to let me know the film was available on Vudu. I immediately downloaded Vudu for the first time, purchased the film, and sat — riveted — for the entire runtime.
The Machine is a select coalition of fraternities and sororities designed to influence campus politics. Sound familiar? If not, oh, sweet summer child, you have a great deal to learn about the intricate and corrupt training ground for Alabama politics.
I have been affiliated with the University of Alabama in some form or fashion since 2002: as a student, staff, adjunct faculty member, and occasional event photographer. I first learned about the Machine between my junior and senior year of high school while attending the Capstone Summer Honors Program at the University of Alabama (for the youngsters reading, this was a precursor to what’s now known as UA Early College — great program). I remember the Tuscaloosa kids in the program whispering about it and having it confirmed by a Machine sorority member who was a counselor for our program. She was an absolute sweetheart who was the first to introduce me to sorority door songs, way before they creeped out the internet and Seth MacFarlane.
She also gave me a copy of your second course: the novel Eating the Cheshire Cat by Helen Ellis.
It was a super fun book that destroyed any chance of me joining a Bama sorority, if there ever was a chance to begin with. That summer was also my first experience reading The Crimson White and befriending folks in The Mallet Assembly, so I was pretty much destined to be a GDI before I ever got my acceptance letter from UA.
As a freshman at Alabama, my SGA president was none other than current United States Senator for the state of Alabama, Katie Britt (née Boyd). Britt was a mostly benign SGA President, as most are, even supporting a unanimous SGA Senate resolution calling upon the Student Health Center to provide morning-after contraception. This decision to support providing basic healthcare would unsurprisingly haunt her in her 2022 U.S. Senate race, although not as much as her primary opponents had hoped. With Richard Shelby and the Machine behind her, there was no doubt in my mind that she would emerge victorious. Indeed, Britt would join former SGA Presidents Lister Hill (the founder of both the SGA and the Machine), Libby Anderson Cater, Robert Vance, Don Siegelman, and John Merrill (interestingly, not a Machine guy) to serve in state and national positions. The MACHINE documentary interviews a few of these VIPs about their time in SGA and experience with the Machine. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I actually yelped in excitement when one of them appeared on screen.
At the end of my sophomore year, while voting quixotically for all the independent candidates, I noticed that a College of Education Senate seat was vacant, so I jokingly wrote my name in. When I realized I was in a run-off with someone else who had the same idea, I asked a few of my COE classmates to vote for me, and I won. While I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the SGA Senate, my term was largely benign as well. I got a few resolutions passed, mostly small things that benefited my COE classmates, but my largest campaign was for a run-off amendment for SGA Presidential Elections. As someone who had been elected as a result of a run-off election, I thought this would be a way to make SGA Presidential elections fairer. As it stood, the winner only needed a plurality, not a majority, which made winning a cake walk for a bloc like the Machine. In an overwhelmingly greek Senate, the amendment never made it to the ballot. No shock there.
Machine-backed SGA kids were always nice to me, at least to my face, in spite of my constant and vain attempts to disrupt their efforts. I never dealt with the harassment that a lot of independents dealt with, but perhaps this is just because I wasn’t that much of a threat. I wrote myself in for a second term, won again without ever running an actual campaign, but ended up resigning when I realized that my student-teaching internship and early graduation mid-year would impede my ability to give ’em hell. When I resigned, a younger independent COE student gave me his credentials and asked for my blessing to run, which honestly felt pretty damn cool. When I was in graduate school, I noticed that the COE Senate seat never went vacant again, so perhaps I was more of a threat than I give myself credit for.
Somewhere during this time period, another friend in a Machine sorority loaned me your third recommended course: Pledged by Alexandra Robbins.
The book was a fascinating read and made me truly grateful for having never pledged myself. Robbins has also written exposés on fraternities and secret societies.
My interest in the Machine waned over time but sharpened again in 2013 when the Machine rather brazenly involved itself with the 2013 Tuscaloosa City School Board elections. Having just left the Tuscaloosa City Schools to work for the University of Alabama, I was highly invested in my former fellow SGA Senator Cason Kirby’s involvement with this scandal. Beamer’s documentary sheds light on this event as well.
As a result of this incident in my graduate studies, I sought to answer the question as to why politicians were so interested in packing local school boards. This led me down a rabbit hole of reading about the Business Council of Alabama, the organization from which Britt resigned as President and CEO in order to run for Senate, and its massive influence on state education policy.
In order to understand the mess that is Alabama politics (and, arguably, national politics), you have to understand The Machine. And in order to understand The Machine, you have to understand sororities. You may scoff at the blonde girls in high heels screaming and clapping in the doorways of massive mansions, but one of them may be your next elected official.
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