What is a White Primary?

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  • Written By: Traci Behringer
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2019
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In modern times, anybody who meets age and residency criteria and is registered can vote for which officials are elected to their local and federal offices in the United States. This has not always been the case, however. Between 1890 and 1944, the Southern States held special elections called white primaries. A white primary was a type of election in which only white voters were permitted to vote; non-white voters were not allowed.

The Democratic Parties within the Southern States were the first to hold a white primary election back in the 19th century. Since, for all intents and purposes, the Southern States had one party — the Democrats — excluding non-whites from voting via white primary elections also meant they were excluded from being able to make any important decisions about the government. Some states even wrote the restrictive white primary elections into law, directly stating that they were "selectively inclusive."

In 1923, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began to see the violations selectively inclusive elections presented. As a result, they began to protest, attempting to challenge the reasoning and the restriction behind them. In 1923, Texas passed a law that explicitly banned African-American citizens from voting in Democratic primaries. This case became the base upon which the ACLU began to focus its main protests.


The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1935 that holding a white primary was within the constitutional rights of the states. Nine years later, however, the ruling was reversed, once the judges decided that the rights of non-white voters were being violated by the isolated elections. A dissenting justice recalled Smith vs. Allwright, a case which overturned racial desegregation, particularly within voting.

All major forms of discrimination with regard to women and blacks, which included racial segregation, were outlawed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Essentially, this act ended legal racial segregation within the workplace, in schools, and in facilities which serve the general public. It also stopped the states from unequally establishing voters and their applications. This does not mean that discrimination and segregation ended, however, only that they were no longer legal. In an effort to guarantee all parts of the legislation would be upheld, Congress asserted its right to pass the legislation under several parts of the Constitution, such as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment, along with Article One.


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