On March 10, Elliot Spillers was elected the first African American SGA president at the University of Alabama in nearly 40 years. Prior to Spillers’ victory, Cleo Thomas was elected in 1976 as the first African American SGA president at the University of Alabama. Both Spillers and Thomas ran as independent candidates in opposition to “The Machine,” which was described in a 1992 Esquire cover story as “a secret society that for eighty years has controlled student politics at the University of Alabama… it acts as the political arm of twenty‐seven leading fraternities and sororities at the school.” Spillers is the first non-Machine candidate to win the SGA presidency since John Merrill in 1986, and Spillers credits a portion of his victory to dissenters within the Machine.
“The entire Machine is not a bad organization,” Spillers says. “It took members within that organization to stand beside me and go against the grain and get me elected to this office. Just like the rest of us on campus, they’re ready for change. They’re ready for an inclusive environment on campus.”
Spillers’ campaign aimed to create such an environment, with Spillers reaching out to Greek, non-Greek, and minority organizations on campus and publicizing the diversity of his platform on his campaign Facebook page. In total, 14,931 votes were cast on Election Day at the university, with Spillers earning 8,602 votes. Spillers received the highest number of votes of any other SGA candidate in the university’s history, and on a campus that has historically been plagued by voter apathy in response to the Machine, this year’s election featured the highest voter turnout in the history of the University of Alabama.
However, Spillers’ road to the presidency was not always an easy one. After Alpha Tau Omega publicly endorsed Spillers by hanging a campaign sign in front of their fraternity house, two unidentified males were captured on video breaking into the ATO house’s balcony and stealing the sign several hours later. Additionally, although neither Spillers nor anyone on his campaign team was able to recount any instances of overt racism directed toward Spillers, Vel Lewis, Spillers’ volunteer and outreach director and an African American member of a Panhellenic sorority, acknowledged that opposition toward Spillers because of his ethnicity was conducted privately or on social media.
“I was made aware of things that were said on social media, private GroupMe [a messaging app] conversations, as well as anonymously on Yik Yak,” Lewis said. “I didn’t see anyone post any racist things on their personal Facebook pages, but many things were said that Elliot would be elected or not elected because he was black — that people would vote because of race. I don’t think that was the case in this election.”
Spillers’ campaign manager Mark Hammontree agrees. “To my knowledge, our team received no threats or messages of an overtly racist nature.” However, Hammontree believes that racial issues continue to exist on a larger scale on campus. “At this University here in the heart of the Heart of Dixie, race and racism have been in many ways the basis for the divisions on this campus and the organizations that exist to keep that division in place. People in places of privilege and power get uncomfortable when you try to threaten the status quo.”
Read more at the Huffington Post.