White primaries

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White primaries were primary elections in the Southern States of the United States of America in which any non-White voter was prohibited from participating. White primaries were established by the Democratic Party or state legislatures in many Southern States after 1890. The United States Supreme Court heard three Texas cases in 1927, 1932, and 1935. The last case ruling against the white primary was decided by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Allwright (1944).

In 1927 and 1932 Texas white primary cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, saying that state laws related to establishing a white primary violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The state followed a new path, allowing the Democratic Party to establish its own rules. In Grovey v. Townsend (1935), the Supreme Court ruled that this was constitutional, as the party was private, not a state institution.

In Smith v. Allwright, the Supreme Court ruled on a challenge to a 1923 Texas state law that had delegated authority to state conventions of political parties to make rules for their primaries. It ruled that the law violated the protections of the Constitution because the state allowed a discriminatory rule to be established by the Democratic Party.[1] After the case, most southern states ended their selectively inclusive white primaries.

Establishment and significance of white primaries[edit]

White primaries were first used by Southern Democratic Parties in the late 19th century. Following the gaining of power by a biracial coalition of Populists and Republicans, when the Democrats controlled state legislatures again, they worked to disfranchise black voters through electoral rules in new constitutions or specific laws, adopting measures to make voter registration more difficult, through such means as poll taxes, residency requirements, literacy tests (for which illiterate whites were grandfathered in), and other devices.

As a result there was a dramatic drop in black voting across the South, and the Democrats were successful in essentially establishing a one-party system in those states. As blacks were excluded from the political process, they were also shut out of local offices and serving on juries.

In an additional effort to exclude blacks and other minorities from voting, Texas and some other states established white primaries, a "selectively inclusive" system that stated that only whites might vote in the primaries, or by legally considering the general election as the only state-held election, and giving white members of the Democratic Party control of the decision-making process within the party and the state. Because the Democratic Party dominated the political systems of all the Southern states after Reconstruction, its state and local primary elections usually determined which candidate would ultimately win office in the general election.

Legal challenges[edit]

Texas passed a law in 1923 that delegated authority to state conventions of political parties to make rules for their primaries, thereby effectively banning African Americans and other minorities from participating in Democratic Party primaries. Beginning in the early 20th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed numerous lawsuits in efforts to overturn discriminatory electoral and voter registration practices by southern states. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also participated in such cases. The ACLU filed suit based on the state's having passed discriminatory legislation in violation of Constitutional amendments.[2]

In Nixon v. Herndon (1927),[3] Nixon sued for damages under federal civil rights laws after being denied a ballot in a Democratic Party primary election in Texas on the basis of race. The Court found in his favor on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, while not discussing his Fifteenth Amendment claim.[4]

Texas amended its related statute to allow the political party's state executive committee to set voting qualifications, and Nixon sued again. In Nixon v. Condon (1932),[5] the Court again found in his favor on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment.[6]

But in Grovey v. Townsend (1935), the United States Supreme Court held that the white primary as established by the Texas Democratic Party was constitutional,[7] on the grounds that the political party was a private entity.

Overturning Texas law[edit]

Another challenge to the Texas law was eventually heard before the Supreme Court as Smith v. Allwright (1944). The Supreme Court decided that white primaries as established by Texas in this state law were unconstitutional.[8]

The ACLU success in Smith v. Allwright applied only to the Texas law. But, most southern states ended their selectively inclusive white primaries.

Tens of thousands of African-Americans registered to vote after the end of white primaries. But, many were still excluded from voting as states used other discriminatory practices, including poll taxes and literacy tests (administered subjectively by white registrars) to keep African Americans from voting.

1964 Democratic National Convention[edit]

The 1964 Democratic National Convention was controversial because of the dispute as to which delegates from Mississippi were entitled to be present and to vote. At the national convention the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) claimed the seats for delegates for Mississippi, on the grounds that the official Mississippi delegation had been elected in violation of the party's rules because blacks had been systematically excluded from voting in the primaries, and participating in the precinct and county caucuses and the state convention; whereas the MFDP delegates had all been elected in strict compliance with party rules. The party's liberal leaders supported an even division of the seats between the two delegations. But Johnson was concerned that, while the regular Democrats of Mississippi would probably vote for Goldwater anyway, rejecting them would lose him the South. Eventually, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther and the black civil rights leaders including Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin worked out a compromise: two of the 68 MFDP delegates chosen by Johnson would be made at-large delegates and the remainder would be non-voting guests of the convention; the regular Mississippi delegation was required to pledge to support the party ticket; and no future Democratic convention would accept a delegation chosen by a discriminatory poll.

Joseph Rauh, the MFDP's lawyer, initially refused this deal, but eventually urged the MFDP to accept it. But the MFDP delegates refused because by accepting the official all-white Mississippi delegation, the party validated a process in which blacks had been denied their constitutional right to vote and participate in the political process. They felt that because the MFDP had conducted their delegate selection process according to the party rules, they should be seated as the Mississippi delegation, not just a token two of them as at-large delegates. Many civil rights activists were deeply offended by the convention's outcome. As leader (and now Representative) John Lewis said, "We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face."[9]

Many white delegates from Mississippi and Alabama refused to sign any pledge, and left the convention.[10] In all, "43 of the 53 members of the Alabama delegation . . . refused to pledge their support for the national ticket of Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and were denied seating."[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944)
  2. ^ Texas Politics - Smith v. Allwright (1944) - White Primaries
  3. ^ 273 U.S. 536 (1927)
  4. ^ Karst, Kenneth L. (1986). "Nixon v. Herndon 273 U.S. 536 (1927)". Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.  – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  5. ^ 286 U.S. 73 (1932)
  6. ^ Karst, Kenneth L. (1986). "Nixon v. Condon 286 U.S. 73 (1932)". Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.  – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  7. ^ Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935)
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ Lewis, John (1998). Walking With the Wind. Simon & Schuster. 
  10. ^ Unger and Unger, LBJ; a Life (1999) pp. 325-6; Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1960-1973 (1998), p. 164;
  11. ^ Kornacki, Steve (2011-02-03) The "Southern Strategy," fulfilled, Salon.com

References and further reading[edit]

  • Alilunas, Leo. "Legal Restrictions on the Negro in Politics: A Review of Negro Suffrage Policies Prior to 1915" The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 153–160
  • Anders, Evan. "Boss Rule and Constituent Interests: South Texas Politics during the Progressive Era" Southwestern Historical Quarterly 84 (January 1981).
  • Barr, Alwyn. Reconstruction to Reform: Texas Politics, 1876-1906 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971).
  • Beth, L.P. "The White Primary and the Judicial Function in the United States. The Political Quarterly Vol. 29 No. 4 (October 1958), pp. 366–377.
  • GreenbPrimary in Texas (Millwood, New York: KTO Press, 1979).
  • David Montejano. Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987).
  • Marshall, Thurgood. "The Rise and Collapse of the 'White Democratic Primary" The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 26, No. 3; The Negro Voter in the South" (Summer, 1957), pp. 249-254.
  • Overacker, Louise. "The Negro's Struggle for Participation in Primary Elections" The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 54-61.
  • Parker, Albert. "Dictatorship in the South." Fourth International, Vol.2 No.4, May 1941, pp. 115–118.(May 1941)
  • Kennedy, Stetson. Jim Crow Guide Florida Atlantic University,(Boca Raton). (March 1990) ISBN 978-0-8130-0987-2