White primaries

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White primaries were primary elections in the Southern states of the United States of America in which only white voters were permitted to participate. White primaries were established by the Democratic Party or state legislatures in many Southern states after 1890, as part of a variety of methods used to achieve disenfranchisement of most black and other minority voters.

The Texas legislature passed a law in 1923 that delegated authority to state conventions of political parties to make rules for their primaries. They banned black and Mexican-American minorities from participating in Democratic Party primaries, the dominant party in Southern states. The United States Supreme Court heard three Texas cases related to white primaries in 1927, 1932, and 1935. In the 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. Texas changed its law in response. In Grovey v. Townsend (1935), the Supreme Court ruled that the practice was constitutional, as it was administered by the Democratic Party, which was a private, not a state institution.

In 1944, the Supreme Court case ruled against the Texas white primary system in Smith v. Allwright.[1] In Smith v. Allwright, the Supreme Court ruled on a challenge to the 1923 Texas state law. 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. After the case, most Southern states ended their selectively inclusive white primaries. They retained other devices of disfranchisement, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, which generally survived legal challenges although they were administered in a discriminatory manner that resulted in most blacks being excluded from the political system in the South until after the 1960s.

Establishment and significance of white primaries[edit]

Southern Democratic party chapters started to use white primaries in the late 19th century, as part of efforts to suppress black voting and weaken the Republican Party in the South. In an effort to maintain white supremacy, Democratic activists had often used violence and fraud at elections to suppress black voting.

Following the loss of power to the biracial coalition of Populists and Republicans, the Democrat-controlled state legislatures systematically adopted electoral rules in new constitutions or specific laws to disenfranchise black voters by making voter registration and voting more difficult. A number of devices were used, including poll taxes, residency requirements, record-keeping requirements and literacy tests, all administered by white officials. They protected illiterate or poor white voters by such devices as grandfather clauses. Application of these measures was done in such a discriminatory way that not even educated, middle-class blacks managed to stay on the voter rolls.

As a result there was a dramatic drop in black voting across the South, with related weakening of the Republican Party in the region. White Democrats were successful in establishing and maintaining a one-party system in most southern states, and they developed great power in Congress, controlling important chairmanships of committees. Black citizens excluded from voting were also shut out of running for local offices, serving on juries, or in other civil offices, and were forced into second-class status.

To strengthen the exclusion, Texas and some other states established white primaries, a "selectively inclusive" system that permitted only whites to vote in the primaries. By legally considering the general election as the only state-held election, they gave 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.

Texas cases[edit]

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 1923 Texas enacted the Statute of Texas, which provided that "in no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic party primary election held in the State of Texas." The law was challenged by Nixon, a black member of the Democratic Party, in Nixon v. Herndon (1927).[3] Nixon was denied a ballot in a Democratic Party primary election in Texas on the basis of the law and sued for damages under federal civil rights laws. 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 to the franchise.[4]

Following the ruling, Texas amended the statute to allow the Democratic Party's state executive committee to set voting qualifications. The new law provided that every political party would henceforth "in its own way determine who shall be qualified to vote or otherwise participate in such political party." Nixon sued again, in Nixon v. Condon (1932).[5] The Supreme Court again found in his favor on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment.[6]

The Democratic Party of Texas state convention then adopted a rule banning black voting in primary elections. This revised scheme was upheld in Grovey v. Townsend (1935), where the Supreme Court held that this basis for a white primary was constitutional,[7] on the grounds that the political party was a private entity. Another challenge to the Texas white primaries was Smith v. Allwright (1944), which overturned Grovey v. Townsend. In that case the Supreme Court ruled that white primaries as established by Texas were unconstitutional.[8]

Though Smith v. Allwright applied directly only to the Texas law, following this ruling, 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]

African Americans continued to work to have their constitutional rights as citizens enforced. Voter registration drives were held in southern states in efforts to work within the system, but they made little progress against white determination to exclude most blacks from voting.

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. Blacks were still systematically excluded by discriminatory provisions from registering and voting in the primaries, and participating in the precinct and county caucuses and the state convention. But, 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 President Lyndon B. Johnson was concerned that, while the regular Democrats of Mississippi would probably vote for Goldwater anyway, rejecting them at that time would lose him the South in the presidential election. 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 national party ticket; and no future Democratic convention would accept a delegation chosen by discriminatory methods.

Joseph Rauh, the MFDP's lawyer, initially refused this deal, but eventually urged the MFDP to accept it. But the MFDP delegates refused. They believed that the national party, by accepting the official all-white Mississippi delegation, had validated a process in which blacks had been denied their constitutional right to vote and participate in the political process. They believed that, because the MFDP had conducted their delegate selection process according to the party's own national rules, they should be seated as the official Mississippi delegation, not just a token two 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]

The next year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, authorizing the federal government to oversee voter registration and other political practices in states with a history of under-representation of minority voters. Work began to register African Americans across the South, and they began to be elected to office again after decades of exclusion.

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, 3 February 2011

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