March 7, 1927 – Supreme Court Decides Nixon v. Herndon, Striking Down Texas Law Forbidding Blacks from Voting in Democratic Primary

Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927) was a United States Supreme Court decision which struck down a 1923 Texas law forbidding blacks from voting in the Texas Democratic Party primary.

In Texas, as in other Southern states, the Democratic Party was the dominant and controlling political party. Voting in the primary was for all intents and purposes equivalent to voting in a general election.

This case was one of four supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that challenged these all-white primaries.

Blacks were denied the right to vote in the primaries pursuant to a statute of Texas enacted in May, 1923 (Acts 38th Leg. 2d Called Sess. (1923) c. 32, § 1 (Vernon’s Ann. Civ. St. 1925, art. 3107)), by the words of which “in no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic party primary election held in the State of Texas,” etc.. . The plaintiff argued that this statute was contrary to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., writing for the unanimous court, found that “it seems to us hard to imagine a more direct and obvious infringement of the Fourteenth.” He continued:

That Amendment ‘not only gave citizenship and the privileges of citizenship to persons of color, but it denied to any State the power to withhold from them the equal protection of the laws. * * * What is this but declaring that the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States, and, in regard to the colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed, that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of their color?’”

He concluded:

The statute of Texas in the teeth of the prohibitions referred to assumes to forbid negroes to take part in a primary election the importance of which we have indicated, discriminating against them by the distinction of color alone. States may do a good deal of classifying that it is difficult to believe rational, but there are limits, and it is too clear for extended argument that color cannot be made the basis of a statutory classification affecting the right set up in this case.”

Texan white supremacists wouldn’t be daunted. They promptly enacted a new provision to continue restrictions on black voter participation, granting authority to political parties to determine who should vote in their primaries. It was not until Smith v. Allwright (321 U.S. 649, 1944) that the Supreme Court finally and decisively prohibited the white primary.

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