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Nixon v. Herndon was a U.S. Supreme Court case contesting the Constitutionality of a 1923 Texas statute barring African Americans from voting in primary elections.   Lawrence A. Nixon, a Black El Paso physician involved in the local NAACP chapter, sued election judge C. C. Herndon after being denied the right to vote in the July 1924 Texas Democratic Primary election, despite being a registered Democrat and having paid his poll tax. The case was the first of four Supreme Court challenges brought by Black Texans against the “white primary” system that kept African Americans from voting in the Democratic primary election, the decisive political contest in Texas and other Southern states.


The white primary was one of several measures intended to disfranchise Black Texans. At the turn of the 20th century, the imposition of a poll tax and election “reform” measures empowering county party organizations to set qualifications for primary voting had greatly reduced Black voting in Texas. In some Texas counties, however, Black voting in primary contests persisted. In El Paso county, Lawrence A. Nixon and other Black residents had voted in Democratic primaries without challenge for more than a decade until the Texas legislature prohibited Black primary voting across the state beginning in the 1924 election.


Dr. Nixon’s lawsuit was backed by the financial and legal resources of the national NAACP, which saw the discriminatory Texas statutes as a good litigation target and the lawsuit as an opportunity to call attention to and raise funds for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Nixon’s attorneys offered a variety of Constitutional claims.  Texas, they argued, had violated the Fifteenth Amendment by denying Nixon’s right to vote solely on the grounds of his race. Moreover, the 1923 statute, by drawing a clear racial distinction, denied Black Texans the equal protection of the law and the privileges and immunities of citizenship as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.


Opposing Nixon and the NAACP was Governor-elect Dan Moody, still serving the end of his term as Texas Attorney General. Texas argued that the qualifications to participate in party primary elections were a political matter not suitable for court scrutiny. The State did not prohibit Black voting in general elections for government office, but only in primary elections, which were help by private political parties to choose their nominees. Constitutional protections, Texas argued, only applied to actions taken by states, and thus should not be applied to the regulation of private primary elections.


The NAACP sought to avoid the distinction between general elections and private primary contests by establishing that in Texas and other Southern states, the Democratic primary was the only election that really mattered. The first courts to hear Nixon’s lawsuit rejected this claim, and ruled that primary elections were actions of private associations, not state actions, and thus immune from Constitutional scrutiny. The Supreme Court, however, reversed lower court findings by ruling that even if primary elections were private, the 1923 Texas law regulating who could participate in them violated Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of equal protection. - Jocelyn Tobias



Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case


At the heart of Nixon v Herndon was the “state action doctrine,” which held that the Constitution restricted the actions of government actors, not private ones. The Court was asked to decide whether primary elections were private affairs or public elections subject to the Fifteenth Amendment, and whether state regulations regarding participation in a private primary contest constituted “state action” subject to the Fourteenth Amendment.


Citation and Decision

Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927)  | Full Decision


Justice Oliver W. Holmes, Jr. delivered a unanimous opinion striking down the Texas law holding that even if primary elections were private contests, “color cannot be made the basis of a statutory classification affecting the right” to participate in the primary. The Court refused to rule on the NAACP’s 15th Amendment claims, however. By sidestepping the question of whether primary elections were elections in which the right to vote was Constitutionally protected, the Court left a clear path by which the Texas Democratic Party could exclude Black voters from primaries. 


Discussion Questions


1. Why do you think Lawrence A. Nixon volunteered to become the plaintiff for this high profile lawsuit? 


2. Why was a case from Texas seen by the NAACP as a good place to start challenging the white primary?


3. What is the “state action” doctrine, and why did the State of Texas claim that it’s white primary system was not subject to Constitutional scrutiny? 


4. Why did the Court not rule on the 15th Amendment claims?


5. How could the State of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party get around the Court ruling and continue to prohibit Black voting in party primary elections?


Oyez: Nixon v. Herndon (1927)

El Paso Times: 91 Years Since


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