Terry v. Adams

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345 U.S. 461 (1953), argued 16 Jan. 1953, decided 4 May 1953 by vote of 8 to 1; Black announced the judgment for the Court, Minton in dissent. This was the last of the so-called white primary cases. Beginning in 1889 in Fort Bend County, Texas, the Jaybird Democratic Association, or Jaybird party, held an unofficial primary election to select candidates for county offices. These candidates entered the Democratic party primary and were invariably nominated and then elected in a usually uncontested general election. White voters automatically became members; blacks were excluded. This “self-governing, voluntary, club” thus was purposefully organized to disfranchise blacks and circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment (p. 463).

There was no majority opinion. Justice Hugo Black said that the state could not countenance the exclusion of blacks from the only election that mattered. Justice Felix Frankfurter emphasized the participation of state election officials in the discrimination. Justice Tom Clark maintained that the Jaybird party was an auxiliary of the state-regulated Democratic party. Eight justices seemed to agree that the Jaybird party was performing a public function and was therefore violating the Fifteenth Amendment. Only Justice Sherman Minton dissented, saying that the Jaybird party constitutionally was nothing more than another “pressure group” (p. 494).

Besides marking the last hurrah of the southern white primary, this decision provided a precedent for Congressional proscription of private racial discrimination under the Fifteenth Amendment in later federal legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Thomas E. Baker

Subjects: Law.

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