White Primary

More than eighty years after the end of slavery, African Americans in Mississippi remained unable to redeem their constitutional promise of equal access to the franchise, in large part as a consequence of the Democratic Party rules that prevented blacks from voting in party primaries. The party argued that as a private organization, it had the right to determine who could participate in intraparty elections. However, in Mississippi and other one-party southern states, the Democratic primary effectively constituted the election, since no viable competitor would appear on the general election ballot. As a result, the party’s “white primaries” meant that African American voters had no say in choosing representatives.

Mississippi adopted a primary election system in 1902, replacing the earlier convention/caucus system for choosing party candidates. Although the primary initially was not restricted to white voters, efforts to exclude blacks soon developed. Historian C. Vann Woodward has suggested that the exclusion of African American voters from the Democratic rolls in the South stemmed from attempts to heal divisions between white Democrats and Populists that emerged during the economic hard times of the 1890s: “The only formula powerful enough to accomplish that was the magical formula of white supremacy, applied . . . without any lingering resistance of Northern liberalism, or fear of any further check from a defunct Southern Populism.” With its 1890 constitution, Mississippi became the first state to formally adopt provisions denying blacks the ballot, including poll tax and literacy qualifications. Because some African Americans could still qualify to vote, the white primary became the last means of disqualifying them.

Prior to the late 1930s the white primary was largely unnecessary, as almost all of the South’s black voters were registered as Republicans. But Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal began to bring African American voters into the Democratic fold, forcing southern party leaders to find ways to exclude blacks from party affairs. While the Fifteenth Amendment prevented African Americans from being denied access to the ballot, southern states enacted legislation recognizing political parties as private organizations, and the parties then contended that they could regulate participation in their internal elections in any way they saw fit.

Beginning in the 1920s, a series of US Supreme Court cases invalidated the white primary. Nixon v. Herndon (1924) held unconstitutional a Texas statute explicitly prohibiting African Americans from voting in primaries. United States v. Classic (1941) held that Congress had the power to protect the right to vote in primary elections. And in 1944’s Smith v. Allwright, the Court held that in light of the state’s role in regulating elections, discrimination by a political party was equivalent to discrimination by the state.

Although the Smith decision explicitly invalidated the white primary, Mississippi and other Deep South states continued to deny African Americans the franchise. Democratic Party officials painted the decision as an issue of states’ rights, and the intent to maintain a white primary remained clear: “We still have a few state’s rights left, and one of those rights is to have Democratic primaries and say who shall vote in them,” Mississippi Democratic Party chair Herbert Holmes told the Boston Daily Globe after the Smith decision. State and Democratic Party officials required voters to swear allegiance to the party platform, which was openly segregationist; continued to impose poll taxes; and administered literacy tests in ways that were subjective, asking would-be African American registrants questions such as “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” and then denying applications on the grounds that the questions had been answered incorrectly.

Both the State of Mississippi and the Mississippi Democratic Party continued to prevent most African Americans from voting until the mid-1960s, when the Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964) banned poll taxes and the Voting Rights Act (1965) banned the use of literacy tests and provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50 percent of the nonwhite population had registered to vote. Whereas only 5 percent of Mississippi’s eligible African Americans had registered to vote in 1960, that number topped 70 percent a decade later, and African Americans accounted for 30 percent of the state’s total registrants.

Further Reading

  • Boston Daily Globe (4 April 1944)
  • V. O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949)
  • Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908 (2001)
  • Nancy Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (1983)
  • C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title White Primary
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018