White primaries

Last updated

White primaries were primary elections held in the Southern United States in which only white voters were permitted to participate. Statewide white primaries were established by the state Democratic Party units or by state legislatures in South Carolina (1896), [1] Florida (1902), [2] Mississippi and Alabama (also 1902), Texas (1905), [3] Louisiana [1] and Arkansas (1906), [4] and Georgia (1908). The white primary was one method used by white Democrats to disenfranchise most black and other minority voters. They also passed laws and constitutions with provisions to raise barriers to voter registration, completing disenfranchisement from 1890 to 1908 in all states of the former Confederacy.

A primary election is the process by which voters, either the general public or members of a political party, can indicate their preference for a candidate in an upcoming general election or by-election, thus narrowing the field of candidates.

Southern United States Cultural region of the United States

The southern United States, also known as the American South, Dixie, Dixieland, or simply the South, is a region of the United States of America. It is located between the Atlantic Ocean and the western United States, with the midwestern United States and northeastern United States to its north and the Gulf of Mexico and Mexico to its south.

Democratic Party (United States) Major political party in the United States

The Democratic Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. Tracing its heritage back to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's Democratic-Republican Party, the modern-day Democratic Party was founded around 1828 by supporters of Andrew Jackson, making it the world's oldest active political party.


The Texas Legislature passed a law in 1923 that allowed political parties to make their own rules for their primaries. The dominant Democratic Party banned black and Mexican-American minorities from participating. The Supreme Court, in 1927, 1932, and 1935, heard three Texas cases related to white primaries. In the 1927 and 1932 cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, saying that state laws establishing a white primary violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Later in 1927 Texas changed its law in response, [5] delegating authority to political parties to establish their own rules for primaries. In Grovey v. Townsend (1935), the Supreme Court ruled that this practice was constitutional, as it was administered by the Democratic Party, which was a private, not a state institution.

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions.

Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which grants citizenship to everyone born in the U.S. and subject to its jurisdiction and protects civil and political liberties

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments. Arguably one of the most consequential amendments to this day, the amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War. The amendment was bitterly contested, particularly by the states of the defeated Confederacy, which were forced to ratify it in order to regain representation in Congress. The amendment, particularly its first section, is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, forming the basis for landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) regarding racial segregation, Roe v. Wade (1973) regarding abortion, Bush v. Gore (2000) regarding the 2000 presidential election, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) regarding same-sex marriage. The amendment limits the actions of all state and local officials, including those acting on behalf of such an official.

Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935), was a United States Supreme Court decision that held a reformulation of Texas' white primaries system to be constitutional. The case was the third in a series of Court decisions known as the "Texas primary cases".

In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled 8–1 against the Texas white primary system in Smith v. Allwright . [6] In that case, the Court ruled that the 1923 Texas state law was unconstitutional, because it allowed the state Democratic Party to racially discriminate. After the case, most Southern states ended their selectively inclusive white primaries. They retained other devices of disenfranchisement, particularly in terms of barriers to voter registration, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. These generally survived legal challenges as they applied to all potential voters, but in practice they were administered in a discriminatory manner by white officials. Although the proportion of Southern blacks registered to vote steadily increased from less than 3 percent in 1940 to 29 percent in 1960 and over 40 percent in 1964, [7] gains were minimal in Mississippi, Alabama, North Louisiana and southern parts of Georgia before the Voting Rights Act.

Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court with regard to voting rights and, by extension, racial desegregation. It overturned the Texas state law that authorized the Democratic Party to set its internal rules, including the use of white primaries. The court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to delegate its authority over elections to the Democratic Party in order to allow discrimination to be practiced. This ruling affected all other states where the party used the white primary rule.

Judicial review in the United States Ability of a court in the US to examine laws to determine if it contradicts current laws

In the United States, judicial review is the ability of a court to examine and decide if a statute, treaty or administrative regulation contradicts or violates the provisions of existing law, a State Constitution, or ultimately the United States Constitution. While the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly define a power of judicial review, the authority for judicial review in the United States has been inferred from the structure, provisions, and history of the Constitution.

Mississippi State of the United States of America

Mississippi is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. Mississippi is the 32nd most extensive and 34th most populous of the 50 United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Alabama to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana to the south, and Arkansas and Louisiana to the west. The state's western boundary is largely defined by the Mississippi River. Jackson, with a population of approximately 167,000 people, is both the state's capital and largest city.

Establishment and significance of white primaries

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.

White supremacy or white supremacism is the racist belief that white people are superior to people of other races and therefore should be dominant over them. White supremacy has roots in scientific racism, and it often relies on pseudoscientific arguments. Like most similar movements such as neo-Nazism, white supremacists typically oppose members of other races as well as Jews.

Following the temporary loss of power to the biracial coalition of Populists and Republicans in the 1890s, when Democrats regained control of state legislatures (often on campaigns based on white supremacy), they 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. The Democrats sometimes protected illiterate or poor white voters by such devices as grandfather clauses, which provided exemptions to men who had ancestors who have voted or resided in certain areas as of a date that excluded blacks. 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.

The Democratic Party achieved 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. They thus developed great power in Congress, controlling all seats allocated to their states, establishing seniority, and gaining critical chairmanships of important committees, which extended their power. 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 of minorities from the political system, Texas, Georgia 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

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. [8]

American Civil Liberties Union Legal advocacy organization

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." Officially nonpartisan, the organization has been supported and criticized by liberal and conservative organizations alike. The ACLU works through litigation and lobbying and it has over 1,200,000 members and an annual budget of over $100 million. Local affiliates of the ACLU are active in almost all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The ACLU provides legal assistance in cases when it considers civil liberties to be at risk. Legal support from the ACLU can take the form of direct legal representation or preparation of amicus curiae briefs expressing legal arguments when another law firm is already providing representation.

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 Dr. L. A. Nixon, a black member of the Democratic Party, in Nixon v. Herndon (1927). [9] 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. [10]

Following the ruling, Texas amended the statute to allow the Democratic Party's state executive committee to set voting qualifications for its primaries. 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). [11] The Supreme Court again found in his favor on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment. [12]

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, [13] 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. [14]

Though Smith v. Allwright applied directly only to the Texas law, following this ruling, most southern states ended their selectively inclusive white primaries. Activists gained the voter registration of tens of thousands of African Americans 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

African Americans continued to work to have their constitutional rights as citizens enforced. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, voter registration drives were held in southern states in efforts to work within the system. In some cases activists were assaulted or murdered, and African Americans 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, as it excluded blacks from voting. 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. Nevertheless, 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. However, President Lyndon B. Johnson was concerned that, while the regular Democrats of Mississippi would probably vote for conservative Republican Barry Goldwater anyway, rejecting them at that time would cost Johnson the South in the presidential election. Eventually, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther and 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 the Democratic Party committed to accepting in the future only those delegations chosen by non-discriminatory methods.

Although Joseph Rauh, the MFDP’s lawyer, initially refused this deal, he eventually urged the MFDP to accept it. However, 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 for many decades 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,

Many white delegates from Mississippi and Alabama refused to sign any pledge, and left the convention. [16] In all,

The next year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, authorizing the federal government to oversee voter registration and other political practices and enforce rights 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. By this time, nearly 6.5 million African Americans had left the South in the Great Migration to escape its oppression and seek work opportunities in the North, Midwest and West, changing the demographics of numerous cities and regions.

See also


  1. 1 2 Walton, Hanes (Jr); Puckett, Sherman and Deskins Donald R. (Jr); The African American Electorate; p. 347 ISBN   0872895084
  2. Farris, Charles D.; ‘The Re-Enfranchisement of Negroes in Florida’; The Journal of Negro History; volume 39, no. 4 (October 1954), pp. 259-283
  3. Perman, Michael; Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908, p. 297 ISBN   0807860255
  4. Gordon, Fon Louise; Caste and Class: The Black Experience in Arkansas, 1880-1920, pp. 51-52 ISBN   0820331309
  5. Nixon v. Condon. Disfranchisement of the Negro in Texas’, The Yale Law Journal, volume 41, No. 8, (June 1932), p. 1212
  6. Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944)
  7. Beyerlein, Kraig and Andrews, Kenneth T.; ‘Black Voting during the Civil Rights Movement: A Micro-Level Analysis’; Social Forces, volume 87, No. 1 (September 2008), pp. 65-93
  8. Texas Politics - Smith v. Allwright (1944) - White Primaries
  9. 273 U.S. 536 (1927)
  10. Karst, Kenneth L. (1986). "Nixon v. Herndon 273 U.S. 536 (1927)". Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.   via  HighBeam Research (subscription required). Archived from the original on June 10, 2014. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
  11. 286 U.S. 73 (1932)
  12. Karst, Kenneth L. (1986). "Nixon v. Condon 286 U.S. 73 (1932)". Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.   via  HighBeam Research (subscription required). Archived from the original on June 10, 2014. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
  13. Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935)
  14. Lewis, John (1998). Walking With the Wind. Simon & Schuster.
  15. Unger and Unger, LBJ; a Life (1999) pp. 325-6; Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1960-1973 (1998), p. 164;
  16. Kornacki, Steve (2011-02-03) ‘The “Southern Strategy,” fulfilled’, Salon.com, 3 February 2011

References and further reading

Related Research Articles

Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution Grants voting rights to all citizens of the United States, regardless of race

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". It was ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.

Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution Prohibits poll taxes, requiring people to pay a tax for the right to vote

The Twenty-fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits both Congress and the states from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other types of tax. The amendment was proposed by Congress to the states on August 27, 1962, and was ratified by the states on January 23, 1964.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), also referred to as the Freedom Democratic Party, was an American political party created in 1964 as a branch of the populist Freedom Democratic organization in the state of Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. It was organized by African Americans and whites from Mississippi to challenge the established power of the Mississippi Democratic Party, which at the time allowed participation only by whites, when African-Americans made up 40% of the state population.

African Americans in the United States Congress

The first African Americans to serve in the United States Congress were Republicans elected during the Reconstruction Era. After slaves were emancipated and granted citizenship rights, freedmen gained political representation in the Southern United States for the first time. White Democrats regained political power in state legislatures across the South and worked to restore white supremacy. By the presidential election of 1876, only three state legislatures were not controlled by white Democrats. The Compromise of 1877 completed the period of Redemption by white Democratic Southerners, with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. State legislatures began to pass Jim Crow laws to establish racial segregation and restrict labor rights, movement and organizing by blacks. They passed some laws to restrict voter registration, aimed at suppressing the black vote.

1964 Democratic National Convention

The 1964 Democratic National Convention of the Democratic Party, took place at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey from August 24 to 27, 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson was nominated for a full term. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota was nominated for Vice President.

Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898), is a United States Supreme Court case that reviewed provisions of the state constitution that set requirements for voter registration. The Supreme Court did not find discrimination in the state's requirements for voters to pass a literacy test and pay poll taxes, as these were applied to all voters.

The Mississippi Democratic Party is the affiliate of the Democratic Party in the state of Mississippi. The party headquarters is located in the state capital, Jackson, Mississippi.

Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927), was a United States Supreme Court decision which struck down a 1923 Texas law forbidding blacks from voting in the Texas Democratic Party primary. Due to the limited amount of Republican Party activity in Texas at the time following the suppression of black voting through poll taxes, the Democratic Party primary was essentially the only competitive process and chance to choose candidates for the Senate, House of Representatives and state offices.

Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era in the United States of America was based on a series of laws, new constitutions, and practices in the South that were deliberately used to prevent black citizens from registering to vote and voting. These measures were enacted by the former Confederate states at the turn of the 20th century, and by Oklahoma when it gained statehood in 1907, although not by the former border slave states. Their actions were designed to frustrate the objective of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870, which sought to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War.

Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932), was a voting rights case decided by the United States Supreme Court, which found the all-white Democratic Party primary in Texas unconstitutional. This was one of four cases brought to challenge the Texas all-white Democratic Party primary. All challenges were supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With Smith v. Allwright (1944) the Supreme Court decisively prohibited the white primary.

E. H. Hurst American politician

Eugene Hunter Hurst Jr. was an American dairy farmer, politician and murderer in Amite County, Mississippi, elected as a Democrat to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1959. He supported segregation and opposed the civil rights movement, which expanded in the early 1960s.

Black suffrage is Black people's right to vote. Black suffrage has been at issue in countries established under conditions of white supremacy. It may be limited through official or informal discrimination. In many places, black people have obtained suffrage through national independence. It should also be pointed out that "Black suffrage" in the United States in the aftermath of the American Civil War explicitly refers to "Black Male Suffrage". While women citizens, regardless of race, held rights to vote in some states, at the federal level, the U.S. Constitution was not interpreted to prohibit discrimination against women in voting, regardless of their race, until the passage of the 19th Amendment which was ratified by the United States Congress on August 18 and then certified by law on August 26, 1920.

The Government of Mississippi is the government of the U.S. state of Mississippi. Power in Mississippi's government is distributed by the state's Constitution between the executive and legislative branches. The state's current Governor is Phil Bryant. The Mississippi Legislature consists of the House of Representatives and Senate. Mississippi is one of only five states that elects its state officials in odd numbered years. Mississippi holds elections for these offices every four years in the years preceding Presidential election years. Thus, the last year when Mississippi elected a Governor was 2015, and the next gubernatorial election will occur in 2019.

Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953), was a United States Supreme Court decision that held white-only pre-primary elections to be unconstitutional. It was the last in a series of court cases addressing the system of white primaries designed to disenfranchise Southern black voters.

1948 United States presidential election in Mississippi

The 1948 United States presidential election in Mississippi took place on November 2, 1948, in Mississippi as part of the wider United States presidential election of 1948.

1968 United States presidential election in Mississippi

The United States presidential election in Mississippi, 1968 was held on November 5, 1968. Mississippi voters chose seven electors, or representatives to the Electoral College, who voted for President and Vice-President.

1968 United States presidential election in Florida

The 1968 United States presidential election in Florida was held on November 5, 1968. Florida voters chose fourteen electors, or representatives to the Electoral College, who voted for president and vice president.

1964 United States presidential election in Florida

The 1964 United States presidential election in Florida was held November 3, 1964. All contemporary fifty states and the District of Columbia took part, and Florida voters selected fourteen electors to the Electoral College, who voted for president and vice president.