From the Annals of Voting Rights – In 1940, Lonnie Smith, an African-American dentist from Houston, was denied a ballot to vote in a Democratic primary because of his race. The stated rationale was that the parties ran their primary elections and that as a private entity, the Democratic Party of Texas could decide its membership and thus determine who could and could not vote in its primary elections. Of course, Texas was a one-party state at the time (much like now) and winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning office in all but a very few instances. The ensuing legal battle lasted four years and resulted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision – Smith v. Allwright , 321 U.S. 649 (1944) in which Smith was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The Supreme Court overturned the Texas law that authorized the Democratic Party to set its internal rules which called for whites only primaries. The court held that it was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment for the state to delegate its authority over elections to the Democratic Party in order to allow discrimination to be practiced. This ruling affected all other states where the party used the white primary rule and was an important step in opening the ballot box to citizens of all races.
Photo of Lonnie Smith