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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
My little refractor at 127x barely separates the white primary from its pale yellow attendant to the west-northwest.
Its 4th-magnitude white primary has a 9th-magnitude orange companion to the north-northeast.
Continuing in the same direction,--1521 is a close, faint, slightly unequal pair with a white primary.
At 47x I see the white primary accompanied by a markedly dimmer, yellow companion to the north-northeast.
As seen through my little refractor, Delta ([delta]) Herculis bears a 3.1-magnitude white primary with an 8.3-magnitude yellow companion 12" west-northwest.
Through my 130mm refractor at 102x, it shows a white primary with a close, yellow-orange companion east-northeast.
This history demonstrated black women's activism and agency operating in Indiana, the kind of local mobilization that I had been impressed by in my study about the opposition of Texas black leaders to the Democratic white primary.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun reported that "some of the hand-wringing Democrats may be wondering whether there is some way" to revive the "white primary" -the electoral device that effectively disenfranchised blacks in the South for a century.
It's a very wide pair through the 130-mm refractor at 37x, with a white primary whose much fainter companion to the north looks yellow-white.
The 7.2-magnitude white primary is widely separated from the 7.7-magnitude yellow companion that dangles to its south.
In addition to finding an overwhelmingly white primary electorate in the state, West Virginia exit polls revealed deep worry over the state of the economy.
About forty years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the last "white primary" in Texas, which enabled white politicians and citizens to undermine democratic elections by using race to pre-select candidates long before any votes were cast.