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CASE:

GROVEY V TOWNSEND (1935)

Introduction

 

The U.S. Supreme Court case of Grovey v. Townsend (1935) was the third of the “White Primary” cases that dealt with the constitutionality of Texas’s all-white Democratic Primary. During the 1860s Congressional Republicans created the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These Reconstruction Amendments ended chattel slavery, provided for state and national citizenship and equal justice under law for white and black Americans, and prohibited voting restrictions based on race. Throughout the late nineteenth century, southern legislatures, with the tacit approval of federal authorities, gradually passed segregation laws that slowly pushed African Americans to the fringes of political life.

 

Throughout the Gilded and Progressive eras, the Democratic Party represented the only significant political party in the South. As such, receiving the party’s nomination in primary elections was in most cases equivalent to winning the official election. In the early twentieth century, the Texas legislature strategically used poll taxes and laws designed to give Democratic election officials power over who could register as a Democrat and who could vote in primary elections to squeeze African Americans out of Texas politics.

 

By the early twentieth century, progressive campaigns such as the Niagara and New Negro movements inspired a new generation of African Americans to begin challenging southern segregation through a series of federal court cases, several of which found their way to the Supreme Court. In Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932), Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and several NAACP attorneys, including a young Thurgood Marshall, argued that the Texas Democratic Party’s all-white primaries effectively denied the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights of African Americans across the state. In Herndon, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Texas’s Terrell Act, which empowered election officials to deny African Americans the right to vote in Democratic primary elections, violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights. Texas officials responded by amending its election laws to allow the Democratic Party’s executive committee to control its membership criteria. Dr. Nixon and the NAACP launched a second legal challenge which resulted in Condon. In a much narrower 5-4 decision, the High Court asserted that the Democratic Party’s executive committee had not been created to determine membership or voting criteria. Therefore Texas was still depriving African American voters of their voting rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Seizing upon this precedent, Texas legislators repealed all state primary laws, remaining silent on the matter and allowing the Democratic Party to organize its primary elections.

 

 

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

 

On July 28, 1934, Richard Randolph Grovey, a well-known Houston barber and civic organizer, launched another legal challenge to Texas’s all-white primary system. With NAACP backing, he attempted to participate in the Democratic primary election. He was denied a ballot by the county clerk Edward Townsend solely based on the color of his skin to abide by the whites-only restriction. Grovey and his attorney sued Townsend for less than $20 and took their casey to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Citation and Decision

Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935)  | Full Decision

 

Speaking for a unanimous court, Justice Owen J. Roberts ruled 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.” As such, the Democratic Party could set its membership and voting policies free from governmental oversight as a private political organization. Flying in the face of precedents such as Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932), the Grovey was considered a constitutional victory for southern segregationists. Bloodied but unbowed, the NAACP and its supporters would again challenge Texas’s all-white primary in the Supreme Court case of Smith v. Allwright (1944).
 

 

Discussion Questions

 

1.Who was Richard R. Grovey?

 

2.Was there debate within the civil rights community about launching this case? If so, what was it? If not, why not?

 

3. How did the court case get to the Supreme Court?

 

4. How did the ruling in this case differ from Herndon and Condon?

Links

Oyez: Grovey v Townsend (1935) 

National Park Service: Racial Voting Rights