University of Alabama Elects First Black Student Government Association President In Almost 40 Years

March 12, 2015  |  


There hasn’t been an African-American Student Government Association president at the University of Alabama in nearly 40 years. But now Elliot Spillers has been elected. In 1976, Cleo Thomas became the first Black SGA president at the university.

Interestingly, both Spillers and Thomas ran as independent candidates opposing what is called “The Machine,” described as “a secret society that for 80 years has controlled student politics at the university,” according to a 1992 Esquire cover story.  The so-called “Machine” is basically the political arm of the school’s 27 leading fraternities and sororities. But Spillers won without benefit of the Machine’s support.

“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 focused his campaign on diversity, reaching out to Greek, non-Greek, and minority organizations on campus and publicizing his platform on his campaign Facebook page. Of the 14,931 votes were cast on university’s Election Day, Spillers got 8,602 votes and received the highest number of votes of any other SGA candidate in the university’s history, reports The Huffington Post.

Not that Spillers’ candidacy was without controversy. When Alpha Tau Omega endorsed Spillers, two unidentified men, captured on camera, broke into the ATO house and stole the frat’s campaign endorsements sign. And while Spillers nor campaign workers could pinpoint any overt racism, Vel Lewis, Spillers’ volunteer and outreach director as well as an African-American member of a Panhellenic sorority, did say that because of Spillers’ ethnicity, opposition to him was conducted privately or on social media.

The school still has a racism problem, however unseen. According to Spillers’ campaign manager Mark Hammontree, “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.”

Spillers’ acknowledges that the 1976 victory by Thomas, who has also continued to give support and advice to students such as Spillers, opened doors for him, albeit almost four decades later.

“This could not have been possible without the help of Cleophus Thomas,” Spillers said. “He’s been a mentor to me throughout this entire process. It’s because of him and men like him that I can stand here as the second black SGA president at the University of Alabama.”

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