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The Supreme Court Rules that Texas's Democratic Party May Discriminate Against Blacks
Digital History ID 3700

Author:   Grovey v. Townsend

Annotation: In 1935, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Guinn v. United States that the Democratic Party in Texas had a right, as a private organization, to exclude blacks from participating in the party’s primary election.

Document: The petitioner, by complaint filed in the justice court of Harris county, Tex., alleged that although he is a citizen of the United States and of the state and county, and a member of and believer in the tenets of the Democratic Party, the respondent, the county clerk, a state officer, having as such only public functions to perform, refused him a ballot for a Democratic Party primary election, because he is of the negro race….

The court declared that a proper view of the election laws of Texas, and their history, required the conclusion that the Democratic Party in that state is a voluntary political association and, by its representatives assembled in convention, has the power to determine who shall be eligible for membership and, as such, eligible to participate in the party's primaries.

The complaint states that…in Texas nomination by the Democratic Party is equivalent to election. These facts (the truth of which the demurrer assumes) the petitioner insists, without more, make out a forbidden discrimination. A similar situation may exist in other states where one or another party includes a great majority of the qualified electors. The argument is that as a negro may not be denied a ballot at a general election on account of his race or color, if exclusion from the primary renders his vote at the general election insignificant and useless, the result is to deny him the suffrage altogether. So to say is to confuse the privilege of membership in a party with the right to vote for one who is to hold a public office. With the former the state need have no concern, with the latter it is bound to concern itself, for the general election is a function of the state government and discrimination by the state as respects participation by negroes on account of their race or color is prohibited by the Federal Constitution….

We think that this statutory system for the selection of party nominees for inclusion on the general election ballot makes the party which is required to follow these legislative directions an agency of the state in so far as it determines the participants in a primary election….

Here we are applying, contrary to the recent decision in Grovey v. Townsend, the well established principle of the Fifteenth Amendment, forbidding the abridgement by a state of a citizen's right to vote. Grovey v. Townsend is overruled.

Source: Grovey v. Townsend, April 1, 1935

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