Amdt15.S1.3 Exclusion from Primaries and Literacy Tests

Fifteenth Amendment, Section 1:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude–

During the same period, the Court faced the exclusion of African Americans from participation in primary elections. While the Court did rule in 1927 that a State of Texas law violated the Equal Protection Clause by prohibiting Black voters from participating in a party primary, it did not hold at first that primary contests were elections to which federal constitutional guarantees applied.1 Instead, the Court found that when an exclusion was perpetuated by political parties not acting in obedience to any statutory command, the discrimination did not constitute state action and was therefore not prohibited.2 This holding was reversed nine years later in Smith v. Allwright when the Court declared that, where the selection of candidates for public office is entrusted by statute to political parties, a political party is acting as a state entity and must abide by the Fifteenth Amendment.3 A severely divided Court was later faced with the exclusion of African Americans by a private organization that, independently of state law or the use of state election funds, monopolized access to Democratic nominations for local office. The exclusionary policy was struck down as unconstitutional but there was no opinion of the Court.4

In 1898, the Court held that literacy tests that apply to all voters equally are fair on their face, and in the absence of proof of discriminatory enforcement could not be said to deny equal protection.5 The Court did, however, affirm striking down a literacy test in the State of Alabama’s constitutional amendment, the legislative history of which disclosed that its intent was to disenfranchise Black voters in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.6 After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,7 when Congress amended the Act to suspend literacy tests throughout the nation, the Court unanimously sustained the action as a valid measure to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.8

Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 541 (1927) ( “We find it unnecessary to consider the Fifteenth Amendment, because it seems to us hard to imagine a more direct and obvious infringement of the Fourteenth.” ). See also Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932). back
Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935). back
Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944); United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299 (1941) (holding that Section 4 of Article I of the Constitution, the Elections Clause, authorizes Congress to regulate primary as well as general elections). back
Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953). back
Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898); Cf. Lassiter v. Northampton Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1959). back
Davis v. Schnell, 81 F. Supp. 872 (M.D. Ala. 1949), aff’d, 336 U.S. 933 (1949). back
For discussion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and cases related to enforcement of federal statutes passed under the Fifteenth Amendment, see supra Amdt15.S2.1 State Action Doctrine through Amdt15.S2.2 Federal Remedial Legislation. back
Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970). back