"Alabama's new schoolhouse door. Sorority Row"
Jason Zengerle
The New Republic
February 04, 2002


TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA

On the first day of sorority rush last September, Melody Twilley woke up and could not find her lavender nail polish. This constituted a bit of an emergency. The night before, Twilley, an 18-year-old student at the University of Alabama, had borrowed a blue and purple slip dress with spaghetti straps from one of her roommates; the lavender nail polish, in her opinion, was essential to completing the outfit. She tore her room apart, emptying drawers and scattering papers, and after half an hour found the polish. But then, when Twilley went to fetch the dress out of the closet, it wasn't there. Another frantic search ensued until Twilley discovered the dress, laid out on a chair, where she had placed it the night before for easy detection. It was that kind of morning.

By noon, however, Twilley was put together and standing in front of the Delta Zeta house, a neoclassical mansion on sorority row. And at twelve o'clock sharp, the doors opened and the young women gathered in the foyer burst into song: "Delta Zeta is the best! Pledge Delta Zeta!" Twilley was ushered in and handed a glass of ice water. For 15 minutes she made small talk with the women who would determine whether she was Delta Zeta material. Then it was on to Zeta Tau Alpha for another round of singing and small talk. Then Alpha Delta Pi, and then Chi Omega. By eight that evening, Twilley had visited 15 sorority houses and had the same conversation 15 times. "They ask where you're from, you ask where they're from. They ask what you're majoring in, you ask what they're majoring in," Twilley recalled. "That's about all you can really do in fifteen minutes." Save for some small touches--Zeta Tau Alpha put strawberries in their ice water; Phi Mu gave the rushees a house tour--there was little to differentiate one sorority from the next. "All of them seemed pretty much the same," Twilley said.

There was also little to differentiate Twilley from the 730 other University of Alabama women going through rush last fall. A tall, pretty girl with a fondness for shopping malls and the Jeep Grand Cherokee her father bought for her, Twilley blended right in to the roiling mix of social ambition and social privilege. But Twilley did differ in two 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.

The University of Alabama was founded in 1831, but it did not enroll its first black student until 125 years later; she lasted three days before being expelled "for her own safety." In 1963 the university integrated for good, with then-Governor George Wallace making his famous "stand in the schoolhouse door" in defiance of federal marshals escorting two black students to register for classes. Since then, the university has made some impressive strides--today blacks constitute 14.5 percent of the undergraduate student body, making the university one of the most integrated state schools in the South--but social integration has been more elusive. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the university's Greek system, which is almost completely divided by race. A few of the school's eight historically black fraternities and sororities have had a handful of white members over the years, but the 37 traditionally white fraternities and sororities have not been as welcoming. 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. More remarkably, aside from a handful of faculty and administrators, no one at the school seemed to care--least of all its black students. And the segregated Greek system is not just a campus issue. That's because in insular Alabama, where the friendships and connections that matter most in life are often made during the four years you spend in Tuscaloosa, if you can't enter the university's white Greek system, you're unlikely to enter the state's political and economic elite.

Sixty years ago the great Southern social critic W.J. Cash wrote that at the University of Alabama "the academic department [has] the status of an appanage [i.e., adjunct] of fraternity row and a hired football team." Today the faculty has improved, and the football team has fallen on hard times, but the fraternities--and now the sororities--still rule the school. Although only about 20 percent of the student body belong to white fraternities and sororities, the white Greeks control the student government association (SGA)--and a $155,000 budget--through something called "the Machine," a secret organization established in 1888. Made up of representatives from about 25 of the white Greek organizations, the Machine selects a slate of student-government candidates each year. It then organizes an impressive get-out-the-vote effort on fraternity and sorority row. "They throw you in vans, give you beer, and you go vote for the [Machine] slate," recalls one former Machine-affiliated fraternity member. "You get fined if you don't go vote. The social pressure is also pretty intense." This lockstep voting by the white Greeks has ensured that since the university's student government was created in 1915, only seven non-Machine candidates have been elected SGA president. "The Machine is like [Yale's] Skull and Bones," says one Alabama professor, "except that the Machine actually has real power."

That power is not confined to the university campus. 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 first real challenge to Machine power came in the '60s. "[A]fter desegregation," says E. Culpepper Clark, dean of the university's college of communications and author of The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama, "the Greeks increasingly became an aberration, no longer reflecting what the university was and is." To some administrators, the Machine and its all-white membership was too much of a reminder of the way things used to be. And they took steps to lessen its impact. For years they tried to coax the white Greeks to admit blacks. In 1993 the administration actually suspended the SGA for three years--after a non-Machine candidate claimed she was attacked by Machine supporters--in the hopes of breaking the Machine's hold.

But the Machine stood strong. Since the SGA was reinstated in 1996, Machine candidates have not lost one presidential election. White Greeks also refused to budge on integration. And that intransigence was sometimes quite ugly. In 1986, when the black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha was planning to move to the previously all-white sorority row, two white students burned a cross on the front lawn of the new house. In the early '90s a black homecoming queen was booed by white fraternity members at her coronation. And three years ago, when a black student mounted a serious but unsuccessful run for SGA president, he received threats on his answering machine. "Nigger," said one, "we're going to hang you from a tree."

It was against this backdrop that Melody Twilley tried to join a white sorority. She was a most unlikely revolutionary. The daughter of upper-middle-class parents--her mother is a librarian; her father is the largest black landowner in the state--Twilley grew up in Alabama's black belt. At 15 she was plucked out of her local high school and sent to the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, a prestigious public boarding school in Mobile. There she was one of only a few black students, but her minority status never occurred to her. "Race isn't really an issue down there," she says. When Twilley arrived in Tuscaloosa in August 2000, it seemed perfectly logical to her that she would join a sorority. After all, her friends from Math and Science--who were white--were joining them. She had the money. (When I once asked Twilley whether sororities offered need-based assistance to students who couldn't afford to pay the hefty dues, she said that they didn't. "If you have a need," she explained, "you probably won't get in.") She even considered herself a Republican. "I just always thought being in a sorority was part of the college experience," she says.

On her first day of rush as a freshman, Twilley visited 15 sororities and loved every one. "I thought it was the greatest," she recalls. "I met all these girls, and they were so cute and they were so sweet and they were doing their little door songs, beating on their windows and everything. I thought it was adorable." When invitations went out for the second round, Twilley was invited back to seven. "It kind of surprised me," Twilley says. "I thought they liked me a little more than that." But she wasn't concerned: "I went to those seven houses, and I just had a blast, and we made little arts and crafts, and I painted flower pots--that was cool." When it came time for the third round, however, Twilley didn't receive any invitations. "The [rush official] said, `Melody, I'm sorry, but I have to tell you that you've been dropped.' And I was like, `Really, are you serious? Why?' And she was like, `I don't know, I'm really sorry. I hope you didn't have a bad rush experience, I hope you had fun anyway.' And I was like, `Yeah, it was cool. I thought I was going to get into a sorority. But that's OK.'"

Although Twilley was one of only a handful of women not to get a bid that year, she didn't think much of her rejection at first. "I guess it occurred to me a couple of weeks later that I hadn't seen many black people wandering around [sorority row]," Twilley says, "[but] I wasn't that upset.... It wasn't like I wanted to drop out of school and move to San Francisco and play a guitar on the street or something." It wasn't until March, when Twilley attended a demonstration at the student union--protesting the Machine's all-white makeup and its control of the SGA--that she went public with her story, telling it to those assembled. Her speech caught the attention of Pat Hermann, an English professor who has been fighting to end the segregated Greek system for more than 15 years. In Twilley he saw the perfect symbol for his cause. "She's bright, she's attractive, she's a member of the upper class," Hermann says. In other words, someone whose exclusion could only be explained by race.

A scholar of medieval literature, Hermann arrived in Alabama in 1974 and, over time, has become something of an anthropologist of the school's Greek system. He also has become a bit of a zealot. Taking me around Tuscaloosa one day in his beat-up Honda Accord, he held forth on the Greeks. "The location of the houses, the nature of the houses, these things matter," he explained, as we drove down University Boulevard, past the stately mansions that make up Old Fraternity Row. Old Row, Hermann said, was where the most powerful--white--fraternities had their houses. New Fraternity Row, on a side street, was largely for the less powerful white houses and the black ones. "Anyone who thinks the Greek system is silly or a foolish thing that can be satirized is seriously underestimating the success of a racist structure that allows not particularly bright young men and young women access to worthy mates," he said.

With Hermann leading the charge, Twilley became a cause célèbre among some faculty and administrators, and the movement to end the segregated Greek system--a movement that had more or less dwindled down to only Hermann--got a shot in the arm. Some began pushing for a "unified rush" instead of the current system, under which white Greeks hold their rush in the fall and black Greeks hold theirs in the spring. Others argued that the white Greeks should be forced to accept black students or forfeit the $100-per-year leases on their university-owned houses, which sit on some of the choicest real estate in Tuscaloosa. In August the faculty senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on the white Greeks to desegregate or risk penalties. And a few weeks later, when rush began and Melody Twilley tried for the second time to join a sorority, she brought along written recommendations from Greek alumni that faculty and administrators had solicited for her. "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."