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White Primary

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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.

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