Terry v. Adams

345 U.S. 461 (1953)

Quick Summary

Terry (plaintiff), an African American voter, challenged the racially exclusive practices of the Jaybird Democratic Association (defendant) in Fort Bend County, Texas. The issue was whether such practices violated the Fifteenth Amendment by excluding African Americans from primary elections that were pivotal in selecting county officials.

The Supreme Court concluded that these practices did indeed violate the Fifteenth Amendment. The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed, and protective measures against future discrimination were mandated for implementation by the District Court.

Facts of the Case

The Jaybird Democratic Association (defendant), also known as the Jaybird Party, a political group in Fort Bend County, Texas, that held primary elections to select candidates who would later participate in the Democratic Party’s primaries and general elections. For more than five decades, the candidate victorious in the Jaybird Party’s primary would invariably succeed in the subsequent Democratic primary and general election.

However, this organization explicitly prohibited African Americans from participating in their primaries, effectively excluding them from having any influence in the selection of county officials.

Terry (plaintiff), an African American voter barred from the Jaybird primary, filed a lawsuit against Adams (defendant) and other representatives of the Jaybird Party, as well as Fort Bend County. The plaintiff asserted that the exclusionary practices of the Jaybird Party were unconstitutional, challenging the assertion that the organization was a private club and therefore not subject to the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibitions against racial discrimination in voting.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The plaintiff filed a suit in federal district court against the defendant for unconstitutional racial discrimination.
  2. The district court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, declaring the Jaybird Party’s practices invalid.
  3. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, stating that the Jaybird Party was not state-regulated and thus not subject to constitutional or congressional prohibitions against racial discrimination.
  4. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the Jaybird Democratic Association’s practice of excluding African Americans from its primaries violates the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition against racial discrimination in voting.

Rule of Law

The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits both state and national governments from denying or abridging the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. This prohibition encompasses any election where public issues are decided or public officials are selected.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court scrutinized whether the Jaybird Party’s exclusion of African Americans from its primaries constituted a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Court observed that the Jaybird Party’s primaries were an integral part of Fort Bend County’s electoral process. Despite not being formally state-controlled, these primaries effectively determined county officials, as their winners consistently succeeded in subsequent official elections.

The Court rejected formalistic arguments that sought to label the Jaybird Party as a mere private group exempt from constitutional scrutiny. Instead, it emphasized that any electoral mechanism designed to deny African Americans a voice in government affairs, either directly or indirectly, contravened the principles established in Smith v. Allwright and subsequent cases.

The Court concluded that permitting such a process within a state constituted an abuse of electoral procedures and defeated the purposes of the Fifteenth Amendment.


The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and affirmed the District Court’s ruling that the combined Jaybird-Democratic-general election machinery deprived African American citizens of their right to vote on account of race and color. The case was remanded to the District Court for further proceedings to protect against future discriminatory practices.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Jaybird Party’s practice of excluding African Americans from its primary elections was found to be unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment.
  2. The Supreme Court emphasized that all forms of elections, whether officially state-controlled or not, fall under the protection of the Fifteenth Amendment against racial discrimination.
  3. The case set a precedent that private organizations cannot circumvent constitutional protections by structuring their electoral processes to exclude certain groups based on race.

Relevant FAQs of this case

How do private entities' actions impact constitutional rights when the outcomes indirectly affect public processes?

The actions of private entities may come under constitutional scrutiny if they have a significant indirect effect on public processes such as elections or governmental functions. The key consideration is whether the private action results in significant consequences that interfere with the exercise of constitutional rights, such as the right to vote or equal protection under the law. In instances where private actions effectively control or influence public decision-making, they may be deemed state action for the purposes of constitutional analysis.

  • For example: A private organization that hosts a forum for mayoral candidates in a city might be seen as carrying out a public function if their endorsement is essential for a successful campaign, thus affecting citizens’ meaningful participation in electing their officials.

In what ways does an electoral process need to be fair and impartial to comply with the Fifteenth Amendment?

An electoral process must be structured to provide equal access and opportunity without racial discrimination. This includes ensuring that all eligible voters have an equal chance to participate in each stage of the process, from candidate selection to casting a ballot. There should not be any practices or mechanisms that disproportionately exclude or disadvantage any racial group. To comply with the Fifteenth Amendment, electoral systems must also prevent indirect methods of disenfranchisement such as literacy tests or poll taxes that historically targeted minority voters.

  • For example: A city’s requirement for property ownership to vote in a municipal election would face legal challenges under the Fifteenth Amendment because it could disproportionately impact racial minorities who have lower rates of property ownership due to historical socioeconomic disparities.


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