1944 April 3

Supreme Court Declares All-White Primary Unconstitutional

 

In Smith v. Allwright, decided on this day, the Supreme Court declared the Texas all-white Democratic Party primary elections unconstitutional. Throughout these years, Democratic Party primary elections were tantamount to the final election, because the Republican Party was all but nonexistent in the South (that changed later with the federal adoption of civil rights laws). The decision was a signal that the Court was increasingly willing to strike down practices that were racially discriminatory.

The Court had previously held the Texas white primaries were unconstitutional in Nixon v. Herndon (March 7, 1927), because they were established by state law, and thus represented state action. Texas evaded the impact of Herndon by transferring control of primary elections to the political parties, thereby making them actions of a private group. The Supreme Court rejected that principle in the decision on this day.

The Court: “The United States is a constitutional democracy. Its organic law grants to all citizens a right to participate in the choice of elected officials without restriction by any state because of race. This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be nullified by a state through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election.”

Read: Charles Zelden, The Battle for the Black Ballot: Smith v. Allwright and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary (2004)

Learn more about the history of the Texas white primary: http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/wdw01

Read: Steven Lawson, Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944–1969 (1976)

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