College is often described as a wonderful institution, a place in which many people have the best experiences of their lives. Students like me forge lasting friendships, take a leap into independence, and even sometimes learn.
College is also a place to make lifelong connections. If you’re destined to be a future Wall Street businessman and your roommate an important politician – good things can happen.
Greek fraternities and sororities are particularly good at this. Take the University of Alabama. Its Greek organizations run The Machine, a secretive organization which effectively controls campus politics. Since student government was initiated in 1915, the Machine’s choice for the SGA Presidency has lost a grand total of seven times – the last of which occurred in 1986. That’s a century of unchallenged Greek dominance.
Machine candidates often go on to have shining political careers. In 2000, The New Republic reported that:
When the Machine’s members leave Tuscaloosa, they typically go on to Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, and Montgomery, and join Machine alums in Alabama’s political and business elite. Machine members work in Alabama’s most prestigious law firms and businesses; they have been state legislators, state party chairmen, congressmen, presidents of the state bar, members of the Public Service Commission, and federal judges. For most of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, both of Alabama’s U.S. Senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman, were Machine alums. Alabama’s current governor, Don Siegelman, was the Machine-backed SGA president in 1968; Senator Richard Shelby is also said to have been a member of the Machine (although his office has denied this). As one former member of a Machine-affiliated sorority explained to the student newspaper The Crimson White, “The goal is to run campus politics, but the real reason they want to run campus politics is so they themselves can run politics in Alabama.”
The meat of The New Republic article, however, does not dwell upon University of Alabama politics – but instead on a rather different theme. It tells the story of one Melody Twilley, a sophomore student at the University of Alabama attempting to join a Greek sorority. Like many of her fellow students, Ms. Twilley “blended right in to the roiling mix of social ambition and social privilege.” Compared to her peers, however, Ms. Twilley was unique in two interesting ways:
For one thing, unlike the vast majority of rushees, who are admitted into sororities as freshmen, this wasn’t Twilley’s first time through. She had tried–and failed–to join a sorority the year before. Which may have had something to do with the other thing that set Melody Twilley apart: She is black.
…Indeed, when Melody Twilley stood in front of the Delta Zeta house last September, it was believed that no white fraternity or sorority at the University of Alabama had ever offered membership to a black student.
Now there are two possible reasons why this may be. To be fair to the Greek organizations, very few black students rush into white fraternities or sororities; instead, they join historically black Greek organizations (this also makes racial discrimination impossible to prove). According to director of Greek Affairs Gentry McCreary:
Of the 1600 women last year that went through sorority recruitment only two African American students participated.
On the other hand, perhaps no black students apply because none expect to be admitted (and because they prefer black fraternities and sororities). Which naturally leads to the second catalyst: segregation as a consequence of tradition and racial tension. Or in simpler terminology:
This phenomenon is not limited merely to Alabama; segregated Greek organizations occur throughout the South and perhaps (hopefully not) the nation. This Time Magazine article investigated racial exclusivity at the University of Georgia, while also noting Greek segregation at the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia.
The New Republic’s article ended with Ms. Melody Twilley’s second attempt to join a white-only sorority, encouraged by school officials:
“I’ve fallen in love with her,” Kathleen Cramer, the university’s associate vice president for student affairs, told me last September. “I think she’s incredibly brave to do it twice. I’m so hopeful it’ll work this time.”
Sadly, this time it did not work. Ms. Twilley was rejected from every single sorority once again, as mandated by The Machine.
Eight years later, the University of Alabama’s sororities have admitted a grand total of two non-white students, to the best of my knowledge (to be fair, they mistook one of these students as white).
Now, if participating in these Greek organizations was merely a matter of partying – this would not be so bad. Being denied access to a racist private club is not nearly so bad as being unable to drink at the same fountain as everybody else. Well then again, maybe not.
But the sororities and fraternities of the University of Alabama do far more than organize parties or encourage alcoholism. They select the future leaders of Alabama and offer a pathway into elite society. The students elected by The Machine will go on to become the state’s senators, governors, and CEOs. When these doors to success come with “white-people only” labels, unfortunately, they effectively bar minorities from achieving the American Dream. And that is an outright shame.