Today in 1944: The Supreme Court strikes down “white primary” elections

April 3, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryThroughout American history, the ruling majority has often taken measures to prevent certain minorities from exercising political power, typically with the purpose of maintaining the majority’s hegemony.  These measures take a variety of forms, and their justifications are typically veiled behind some ulterior motive.

One particularly popular form that these measures have taken is voter suppression – that is, laws and policies that operate to make voting more difficult for specific groups (sometimes so difficult that voting is all but impossible for individual members of these groups).

Voter suppression became particularly popular in the U.S. South during the Jim Crow era, with a number of different laws and policies put in place by the white majority working together to prevent the black minority from voting – despite the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment prevented voter discrimination based on race.

Although tactics such as poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests remain some of the most well-known examples of black voter disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow South, another, lesser known method was actually one of the most effective at maintaining the segregation status quo: white primaries.

“White primaries” were primary elections in the South in which only white voters were allowed to participate.  They were originally established by the Democratic Party, then the dominant political party of the South because of its conservative segregationist platforms.  Because of the party’s dominance, elections were largely not decided on Election Day, but during the party’s primary elections – since there was little possibility that the Democratic candidate would lose in the general elections.

Thus, white primaries effectively prevented black voters from having any real impact on elections in the South, even if they were able to vote in the general elections.  The reason that this policy is relatively unknown today, though, has to do with the fact that it was invalidated quite early in the Civil Rights movement of the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Specifically on April 3, 1944, when the Supreme Court declared white primaries to be unconstitutional  in its Smith v. Allwright ruling, 71 years ago today.

In Smith, Lonnie E. Smith, a black man, was denied the right to vote in the 1940 Texas Democratic primary by white election official S.S. Allwright.  Smith sued, challenging the Democratic Party’s policy that only allowed whites to vote in primary elections.  Represented by then-attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Thurgood Marshall, Smith’s case advanced all the way to the Supreme Court.

In a ruling in Smith’s favor, the Court held that although the Democratic Party was a private, voluntary organization, the Democratic Party held primaries under state statutory authority and state courts “are given exclusive original jurisdiction of contested elections and of mandamus proceedings to compel party officers to perform their statutory duties.”  Furthermore, the Court noted that when “primaries become a part of the machinery for choosing officials, … the same tests to determine the character of discrimination or abridgement should be applied to the primary as are applied to the general election.”

Thus, the Court struck down the practice by a vote of 8-to-1, despite the fact that the Court had previously upheld that same practice unanimously only nine years earlier in Grovey v. Townsend.

The ruling was hailed as a major victory for voting rights since it so clearly established the rights of blacks to vote in primary and general elections alike, and is largely regarded as laying the foundation for the Civil Rights movement.

Unfortunately, other forms of black voter suppression continued after Smith.  Although many were later struck down by the Court or outlawed by statute, some arguably exist today in the form of “voter ID” laws.

Regardless of the fact that it didn’t completely eradicate voter suppression tactics, Smith and rulings following it that struck down individual methods of disenfranchisement served to make such tactics more difficult by bolstering the body of law protecting the right to vote.