Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that disenfranchisement of African Americans in state primary elections was unconstitutional. Although a significant victory for civil rights, the decision did not end attempts by Texans to disenfranchise African American voters, especially in county elections.

Summary of Event

In 1923, the Texas legislature sought to disenfranchise African American voters in the state by passing a resolution that “in no event shall a Negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic primary. . . .” Since the 1890’s, in Texas as in all other Southern states, nomination in the Democratic Democratic Party, U.S. primary was tantamount to election; therefore, while African Americans would be permitted to vote in the general election, they would have no meaningful role in the political process. Supreme Court, U.S.;voting rights Smith v. Allwright (1944) Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [kw]Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional (Apr. 3, 1944) [kw]African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Rules (Apr. 3, 1944) [kw]Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement (Apr. 3, 1944) Supreme Court, U.S.;voting rights Smith v. Allwright (1944) Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [g]North America;Apr. 3, 1944: Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional[01130] [g]United States;Apr. 3, 1944: Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional[01130] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 3, 1944: Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional[01130] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 3, 1944: Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional[01130] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 3, 1944: Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional[01130] Reed, Stanley Smith, Lonnie E. Marshall, Thurgood Hastie, William Henry Nixon, Lawrence Aaron Grovey, Richard Randolph

Almost immediately after the Texas legislature barred African Americans from participating in the Democratic primary, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;litigation (NAACP) secured a plaintiff, Dr. Lawrence Aaron Nixon, to test the constitutionality of the law. In Nixon v. Herndon Nixon v. Herndon (1927) (1927), the United States Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. Jr., held that the Texas statute violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against African Americans on the basis of race. He also ruled, however, that it was unnecessary to strike down the white primary as a denial of suffrage “on account of race [or] color” repugnant to the Fifteenth Amendment Fifteenth Amendment .

The Texas legislature reacted defiantly to the Supreme Court decision. On June 7, 1927, the legislature passed a new resolution granting to the state executive committees of every political party the authority to establish the qualifications of their members and to determine who was qualified to vote or otherwise participate in the party. In turn, the Democratic Party State Executive Committee Democratic Party State Executive Committee, Texas limited participation in its primary to white voters in Texas.

Once again Nixon filed suit, this time against James Condon, the election officer who refused to give him a ballot in the 1928 Democratic primary. In Nixon v. Condon Nixon v. Condon (1932) (1932), the Supreme Court struck down this new Texas statute as a violation of the equal protection clause. The vote was 5 to 4.

The Democratic Party State Executive Committee immediately rescinded its resolution prohibiting African Americans from voting in its primary, but the state party convention voted to limit participation in its deliberations to whites, and Nixon and the NAACP, after two Supreme Court cases and an expenditure of six thousand dollars, were once more back at the beginning. In July, 1934, Richard Randolph Grovey in Houston, Texas, was refused a ballot to vote in the Democratic primary. On April 1, 1935, in Grovey v. Townsend, Grovey v. Townsend (1935) Justice Owen J. Roberts Roberts, Owen J. ruled that the Democratic Party was a private organization, and that its primary, although held under state law, was a party matter paid for by the Democrats. Since Roberts could find no state action in the process by which Democrats nominated their candidates, there was, he said, no violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

There the matter rested. The primary was held not to be part of the general election, so there was presumably no relationship to the Fifteenth Amendment’s protection of suffrage. Because the Democratic Party was a private organization, it was free to establish membership qualifications, and there was not sufficient state involvement to invoke the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.

It seemed there was no way to contest the validity of the Texas white primary. In 1941, however, in United States v. Classic, United States v. Classic (1941) a case that ostensibly had nothing to do with African Americans or the white primary, the Supreme Court held for the first time that the right to vote was protected in a primary as well as in the general election, “where the state law has made the primary an integral part of the process of choice or where in fact the primary effectively controls the choice.”

United States v. Classic dealt with a Louisiana primary in which there had been fraudulent returns, but otherwise there was no way to distinguish the Texas primary from the one held in the neighboring Southern state. In Texas, as in Louisiana, in 1941 as in 1923, Democratic Party nomination was a virtual guarantee of election, and the general election was a mere formality. The NAACP took immediate advantage of the ruling: Lonnie E. Smith, a Houston dentist and NAACP member, sued a Texas election official for five thousand dollars for refusing to give him a ballot to vote in the 1940 Democratic congressional primaries. The NAACP’s legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall, and William Henry Hastie, dean of the Howard Law School, brought Smith v. Allwright to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In April, 1944, mindful of Southern sensibilities but intent upon overruling the nine-year-old precedent in Grovey, the Court chose Stanley Reed, a Democrat from Kentucky, to write its opinion. Justice Reed’s opinion made it clear that the Court, except for Justice Roberts (the author of the Grovey decision), had concluded that the primary was an integral part of a general election, particularly in the Southern states. The Classic decision, wrote Justice Reed, raised the issue of whether excluding African Americans from participation in the Democratic Party primary in Texas violated the Fifteenth Amendment. The answer was in the affirmative, and Grovey v. Townsend was expressly overruled.

Significance

The long litigative battle against the Texas white primary seemed to be over—but it was not. In Fort Bend County, Texas, the Jaybird Democratic Party Jaybird Democratic Party , organized after the Civil War, held primaries closed to African American voters; its candidates consistently won county offices. In spite of Smith v. Allwright, the Jaybirds refused to open their primary to African Americans, arguing that they did not operate under state law or use state officers or funds. Nevertheless, in Terry v. Adams Terry v. Adams (1953) (1953), the Supreme Court held that the Jaybird primary violated the Fifteenth Amendment, because it controlled the electoral process in Fort Bend County.

It took twenty-one years for the United States Supreme Court to rule that the Texas white primary violated the right to vote guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. It would take another twenty-one years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally secured the ballot for African Americans in the South. In the interim, the fall of the white primary had the practical effect of increasing African American registrants in the Southern states from approximately 250,000 in 1940 to 775,000 seven years later. African Americans were still intimidated and defrauded of their suffrage rights, but Smith v. Allwright was an important landmark on the road to uninhibited enfranchisement. It also was a symbol that the Supreme Court would examine the reality behind the subterfuge engaged in by anti-suffrage lawmakers and act to protect African Americans in the enjoyment of their civil rights. Supreme Court, U.S.;voting rights Smith v. Allwright (1944) Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fassett, John D. New Deal Justice: The Life of Stanley Reed of Kentucky. New York: Vantage Press, 1994. A biography of the conservative Democratic justice who wrote the majority opinion in Smith v. Allwright.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas. Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1979. An examination of the background of the white primary and the struggle to bring about its demise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of “Brown v. Board of Education” and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. An eminently readable analysis of another landmark Supreme Court case in African American history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Traces the development of African American enfranchisement from Smith v. Allwright to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its aftermath. Includes a chapter on the white primary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powledge, Fred. Free at Last: The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. A popular account of the struggle for equality during the 1960’s, with numerous human interest stories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zelden, Charles L. The Battle for the Black Ballot: “Smith v. Allwright” and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Book-length study of the case, its intricacies, and its consequences. Bibliographic references and index.

Congress of Racial Equality Forms

Congress of Racial Equality Holds Its Journey of Reconciliation

Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups

Civil Rights Act of 1960

Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote

Poll Taxes Are Outlawed

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

Marshall Becomes the First African American Supreme Court Justice

Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing

Categories: History Content