From the Annals of Voting Rights – In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Smith v. Allwright. The Court held that the Democratic Party’s “white primary” system was unconstitutional. The case started when African-American dentist Lonnie E. Smith attempted to vote in the Democratic primary in his Harris County precinct. Under the “white primary” system, Smith was denied a ballot. In the 1940’s, winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election in all but rate cases. If you could not vote in the primary, essentially you could not vote at all. Smith fought back with the assistance of attorneys supplied by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (including future U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall). Smith filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in 1942 arguing that he had been wrongfully denied his right to vote under the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth amendments by the precinct election judge, S. E. Allwright. He lost at the district court, but appealed all the way to the Supreme Court which in an 8-1 decision ruled in his favor. Discrimination continued in the form of “poll taxes” and other tactics employed to suppress minority voting, but tThe Smith decision did end the white primary in Texas. The number of African Americans registered to vote in Texas increased from 30,000 in 1940 to 100,000 in 1947.
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