White Primary

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White Primary

A legal device once employed by some Southern states to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote in a meaningful way.

In the 1920s Southern states began using the white primary as a way of limiting the ability of African Americans to play a part in the political process. The white primary was an effective device because of the virtual one-party political system in the South that existed until the late 1960s. In all but a few areas nomination by the Democratic Party was tantamount to election, with Republicans often not bothering to run in the general elections.

In order to keep African Americans out of the political process, the Democratic party in many states adopted a rule excluding them from party membership. The state legislatures worked in concert with the party, closing the primaries to everyone except party members. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1921, in Newberry v. United States, 256 U.S. 232, 41 S. Ct. 469, 65 L. Ed. 913, that political parties were private organizations and not part of the government election apparatus. Therefore, by means of the white primary device, African Americans were disenfranchised without official State Action that would have triggered Judicial Review under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Beginning in the late 1920s the Supreme Court reviewed a series of cases involving the white primary. In Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 47 S. Ct. 446, 71 L. Ed. 759 (1927), the Court ruled that the state could not formally endorse the white primary, but in Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45, 55 S. Ct. 622, 79 L. Ed. 1292 (1935), it upheld a Texas white primary that was based solely on a resolution adopted by the state Democratic party.

In United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 61 S. Ct. 1031, 85 L. Ed. 1368 (1941), the Court ruled that the federal government could regulate party primaries to prevent voter Fraud. In recognizing that primaries were part of a state's electoral scheme, it overruled the Newberry precedent and weakened the Grovey v. Townsend holding. Finally, in Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S. Ct. 757, 88 L. Ed. 987 (1944), the Court overruled the Grovey decision and struck down the white primary as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment's prohibition against voting discrimination based on race.

Following Smith v. Allwright, Texas Democrats established a private association from which African Americans were excluded. The members of the association held "preprimary" elections to select candidates for the Democratic primaries. The Supreme Court declared in Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461, 73 S. Ct. 809, 97 L. Ed. 1152 (1953), that the preprimary device was unconstitutional, as it made the primary and general elections "perfunctory ratifiers" of the decisions made during the preprimary process.


Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement; Elections; Voting.

References in periodicals archive ?
Long before the summer that changed the state and resulted in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the Democratic Party's white primaries in the South, black people in Mississippi had been paying the price for organizing.
So once you have found your white primaries you can focus in on more detail and decide which gull you have picked out.
The adult Med Gull has lovely white primaries, then check the size, about the size of a Common Gull, heavy blood red bill, dark mask through the eye, red stout legs.
The days of lynchings, poll taxes, and white primaries have passed, yet the votes of citizens of color are stealthily manipulated and suppressed.
The white primaries that Smith and Terry invalidated denied this opportunity not simply because they were racially exclusive, but because they enforced their exclusivity in the context of determinative primary elections.
By invalidating the racially exclusive white primaries, Smith and Terry may certainly be read to embrace the former proposition.
Professors Issacharoff and Pildes argue that the Jaybird primary was distinct from the white primaries struck down in the three earlier white primary decisions because it did "not involve any use at all of the state election machinery to lock up power for existing forces.
112) The failure of these jurisdictions to take such actions rendered the white primaries sponsored by the Democratic Party and the Jaybirds state action.
When the Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that these white primaries violated the basic tenets of the Fourteenth Amendment, Florida was faced with the problem of redefining its party policies.
Allwright, &dared white primaries to be unconstitutional.
Over time, the nation has seen the elimination of numerous barriers to voting rights - from property, race, sex, and age qualifications to exclusionary white primaries, poll taxes, high candidate filing fees, and vote dilution schemes.
Laws creating white primaries were overturned by the courts, but southern states still found ways to exclude blacks from voting.