The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Viral sorority TikTok videos share only one side of Southern university life

Greek life is important at schools like the University of Alabama. But another tradition exists as well.

The Bryant-Denny Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. (iStock)

Over the past two weeks, Vox, the Cut, NBC and others have reported on TikTok videos from sorority rush at the University of Alabama that went viral. As the New York Times explained, “The videos are uniform and mesmerizing: The women, most of whom have southern accents, simply explain what day it is and what brands they are wearing from earrings to shoes.” Reactions ranged from users mocking the women to one suggesting a fantasy league.

CNN reported that the videos enthralled in part because “people are getting access to information … that is foreign to them.” But while the platform is relatively new, and the experience of sorority recruitment might be foreign to some readers, the information is not. A better explanation for the popularity of the videos is confirmation bias: They reinforce readers’ vision of the University of Alabama.

After all, this is not the first time that Greek life at a Southern university has gone viral. Earlier this year, a “Bachelor” contestant’s attendance of the Kappa Alpha “Old South” fraternity party at Georgia College & State University made news. In 2013, even the Guardian covered the integration of sororities at Alabama.

But while this coverage frames how Americans conceptualize life at Southern colleges and universities, it tells only part of the story. In reality, students not taking part in Greek life at the University of Alabama have steadily challenged the Greek system and its power since the 1930s. The story of one such student, the late congressman Carl Elliott (D-Ala.), reveals a different side of Southern universities.

Elliott was a tenant farmer’s son who shoveled coal, kept the university grounds and waited tables to pay tuition. As his former chief of staff, Mary Allen Jolley, said, “He was born poor, and he died poor.” Elliott never forgot being laughed at or sleeping in the abandoned, rat-infested observatory on campus, so he spent most of his life after graduation fighting for the rights of poor miners and their families.

Alabama is the fifth-poorest state in the country, with 16.8 percent of its population living in poverty. The number rises to 28.4 percent for Black residents and 32.2 percent for Latinos. This poverty has long roots. The state has offered limited economic opportunity since the Civil War. After a decline in cotton prices in the early 1920s, Alabama careened toward depression years before the crash of 1929. More than half of farmers, immortalized by photographer Walker Evans, were tenants by the Great Depression.

Elliott was born on a tenant farm near Vina as one of nine children. He memorialized North Alabama in his autobiography, “The Cost of Courage” (1992): “It was and still is a hard country up there, at the southern tip of … Appalachia. This is not the sort of place most folks picture when they think of Alabama.”

During Elliott’s time at the University of Alabama, student life was dominated by “the Machine,” a group of Greek organizations that has determined student politics for more than a century. Under the motto “Little is known and what is known is kept secret,” the Machine has maintained a grip over everything from the student government to the homecoming queen. Its alumni have gone on to powerful positions, including U.S. Sens. John Bankhead and Lister Hill, both Democrats.

Over the years, the Machine has found itself the subject of a federal investigation and at the center of controversies — including over burning crosses and allegedly interfering with municipal elections.

In 1935, Elliott became the first to defeat a Machine-backed candidate for Student Government Association (SGA) president, thanks to the votes of women, out-of-state students and independents (those not engaged in Greek life). As the future congressman later wrote, he could never “go along with the crowd: ‘Well … what difference does it make what everybody says?’ ”

As president, he arranged an event for independents, unionized waiters and argued for cheaper bookstore prices. In 1936, he traveled to Washington to testify for scholarships in a bill called the American Youth Act. Sen. Hugo Black (D-Ala.) arranged a meeting between Elliott and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who later sent him a photo signed “To a New Voice in Education.”

Elliott’s student government experience shaped his political philosophy. He told Jolley that it taught him “more about politics than he would ever be able to implement.” Understanding the Machine drove Elliott to study powerful groups and people, because “you need power and prestige to get things done in Congress.”

Elected to Congress in 1948 after a few years practicing law, he learned “the tactics of a select few autocratic individuals and overly influential — and largely unseen — power groups.” He educated himself on “who [they] were, whether he intended to join them or not.”

He used this knowledge to advocate for education, working with other New Deal Democrats from Alabama. In 1956, Congress passed Elliott’s Library Services Act, which provided aid to rural libraries and set up mobile ones for communities without access. In 1957, he joined Rep. George McGovern (D-S.D.) to begin the process of drafting legislation supporting education in the shadow of the Cold War and the launch of Sputnik.

He hoped that the 1958 National Defense Education Act could lead Americans to eventually become comfortable with permanent aid for higher education. The bill supported graduate and undergraduate study, as well as vocational programs.

Elliott knew firsthand how much his constituents valued education and public works. In 1963, he and President John F. Kennedy flew over the North Alabama hills where Elliott grew up. Within minutes, Kennedy arranged the allocation of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the area for water systems. Many times, Elliott sent Jolley to food lines to record people’s needs. The congressman also held weekly radio shows and more than 100 town halls every year.

The politics of representing a mostly White district drove Elliott to capitulate to segregationists. Paraphrasing Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.), he wrote that if Southern liberals voted against civil rights, they could push “every other liberal issue.” He signed the “Southern Manifesto” supporting segregation in 1956, writing that he put his name on “the evil thing” so that he could keep fighting for education.

Politically, Elliott’s sense of his constituents was right. When he finally spoke out against racism in the early 1960s, it cost him his seat. The state put off redistricting following the 1960 Census, instead holding a statewide runoff election in 1964 to reduce its number of representatives from nine to eight. Elliott came in ninth. Tellingly, he was the only candidate who refused to kiss segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s ring.

Elliott then lost the 1966 Alabama governor’s race to Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, the governor’s surrogate candidate, and remained in debt for the rest of his life. Throughout the race, Elliott and his supporters remained undeterred in the face of bomb threats and bullets. In 1990, he would receive the first John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award.

Historian Charles Kenneth Roberts argues that economic liberals like Elliott suffered because politicians like Wallace portrayed the federal government as a social and cultural threat to their poor White constituents.

His early life and battles with the Machine had shaped this populism and the emphasis he placed on education as a tool for uplift. He understood that the Southern population consisted of far more than those in the moneyed world of Greek life at colleges like the University of Alabama. According to Jolley, “Education was everything” to Elliott. He believed everybody had a right to one. “We used to call it the American Dream.”

Even so, the Machine’s power endured long after Elliott’s strand of populism fell out of favor politically. In 1989, one independent accused the Machine of beatings, bomb threats and driving his father’s small business into the ground. In 1996, a Greek student was assaulted, as she was not the Machine’s choice for student president.

This power helps explain the attention paid to Southern Greek life. Yet, the #BamaRush videos show only a fraction of student life at the University of Alabama. Many Alabama students are just as committed to continuing Elliott’s legacy of pushing for expanded education and other liberal causes as others are to their sororities or fraternities. Every now and then, a student like Marissa Lee comes along who works for sustained reform within Greek life. Remembering Elliott’s life and work shifts attention back to these students to ensure that they are not left behind in the public imagination.

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