On This Day in Supreme Court History—April 3, 1944: The White Primary Struck Down

On this day in 1944, the Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Smith v. Allwright, struck down the Texas Democratic Party’s policy of excluding African Americans from participating in its primary election.

Texas state law authorized the state’s Democratic Party to establish its own operating rules. Among these rules was a requirement that all primary voters be white. Lonnie E. Smith, a black voter in Harris County, Texas, sued his county election official, S.S. Allwright, arguing that the Constitution prohibited Texas from allowing the state’s Democratic Party to  practice racial exclusion in its primary election.

The Democratic Party had controlled politics in the South since the late nineteenth century. Democrats dominated southern state and local offices and most federal representatives from the South were Democrats. In most southern states, the only competitive election was the Democratic primary. When the Democratic Party prevented African Americans from participating in their primaries, it effectively blocked southern blacks from casting the one vote that really mattered. The white primary combined with other forms of disfranchisement—poll taxes, literacy test, physical intimidation—to deprive black Texans, as well as other racial minorities, of the vote.

Texas defended itself against Smith’s lawsuit by arguing that the Democratic Party was a private association, so the state was not responsible for the party’s racial discriminatory policy. The Supreme Court rejected this argument. In an 8-1 decision, with Justice Stanley F. Reed writing for the majority, the Court found that the Texas policy that empowered political parties and gave them discretion to make their own rules violated the Constitution when it resulted in racial discrimination. Even though the Democratic Party of Texas is a voluntary association, the Court found primary elections were conducted by the party under state authority. The Court found the Texas policy infringed on Smith’s Fifteenth Amendment right to vote and also denied Smith his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. The Court reasoned that just like the right to vote afforded to citizens during general elections, citizens have that same right to participate in a primary election without racial discrimination.

This decision had widespread implications for black participation in Texas politics, although many discriminatory voter registration policies remained. By 1948, four years after Allwright, the number of registered black voters in the South rose to 800,000; by 1952 it reached over one million.

Smith’s efforts in Allwright also inspired Houston resident Barbara Jordan to pursue a political career. She would become the first African American elected to the Texas Senate since Reconstruction and then the first southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives.

 

This Post was Written by ISCOTUS Fellow Breana Brill, Chicago-Kent Class of 2021, and edited by  ISCOTUS Co-Director and Chicago-Kent Faculty Member Christopher W. Schmidt.

 

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