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Nixon v. Herndon


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273 U.S. 536 (1927), argued 4 Jan. 1927, decided 7 Mar. 1927 by vote of 9 to 0, Holmes for the Court. The collapse of the Republican party in the South after Reconstruction, and then, in 1896, of the Populist party, led to one-party government by the Democratic party in the region. This cut off southern blacks from the one election that counted: the Democratic primary. In the 1920s, Texas blacks sought to register and vote as Democrats. Texas countered with a law barring blacks from voting in the Democratic primary. Dr. L. A. Nixon, a black man from El Paso, attacked the law as a violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Though both sides had primarily argued the Fifteenth Amendment, the Court found it unnecessary to consider that issue because it found the Texas law a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Whether, in fact, the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment is a harder question than one might have guessed from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's brisk, epigrammatic opinion. None of the Fourteenth Amendment's sponsors thought it protected the right to vote; neither had the Supreme Court in Minor v. Happersett (1875).

Nixon did not end the blacks’ exclusion but merely induced Texas to shift that task to the Democratic party. Only in Smith v. Allwright (1944) did the Court rely on the Fifteenth Amendment to outlaw white primaries altogether and finally permit the integration of blacks into southern politics.

Ward E. Y. Elliott

Subjects: Law.


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