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Smith v. Allwright (1944) represented the last and most significant of the “Texas Primary Cases,” which involved efforts by African Americans to register as Democrats and vote in the party’s primary elections. Following the Civil War, Congress created the Fourteenth Amendment, which promised equal justice under law for all Americans, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade discrimination in voting rights based on race. In 1923, the Texas legislature amended a state primary law prohibiting people of color from voting in primary elections for political parties. As the Democratic Party represented the only organized political organization in the state, Democratic primary elections were essentially the only opportunity voters had in expressing their voices. With the support of the NAACP, Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon had successfully maintained the rights of African-Americans to register as Democrats and vote in primary elections in two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1935). In both cases, however, the High Court ruled narrowly that the Texas primary law violated Nixon’s Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights and declined to rule on whether his Fifteenth Amendment rights had been violated. In 1934, Richard Randolph Grovey, a Houston barber and political activist, sued county clerk Edward Townsend for refusing to grant him a ballot in a Democratic primary election. In the subsequent case of Grovey v. Townsend (1935), Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts ruled that political parties were voluntary political organizations not subject to the state.


Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, many African Americans had strongly supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal plans and the Allied effort in the Second World War. Black activists, including A. Philip Randolph, argued that Americans should fight not only for freedom abroad but civil rights at home.


Born in Yoakum, Texas, in 1901, Lonnie E. Smith received a Doctor of Dental Surgery from Meharry Medical School in 1924 and opened a dental practice in Houston in 1929. Like Nixon and Grovey, he was a white-collar professional and active community organizer with a solid reputation in Houston’s black and white communities. Supported by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, Smith launched a test case to overturn the Democratic party’s monopoly on voting in state elections. Marshall argued in Federal Court that by denying his client, a ballot for a Democratic party primary election, Harris county election official S.S. Allwright had deprived Smith of both his Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights. Marshall also cited the recent Supreme Court case of United v. Classic (1941) that political parties were subject to state regulation. Attorneys for Allwright countered by citing Grovey v. Townsend (1932), which maintained that political parties could set membership and voting standards as they saw fit as private organizations. They continued that if the court ruled against their favor, they would directly contradict themselves. The Smith v. Allwright case was first argued on November 10, 1943, then reargued on January 12, 1944. The Supreme Court ultimately came to its decision on April 3, 1944.



Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case


Was the Democratic Party violating Black citizens' Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights by denying them the right to vote in the party's primary?


Citation and Decision

Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944)  | Full Decision


Speaking for an 8-1 majority, Associate Justice Stanley Reed argued that under the Fifteenth Amendment, the United States granted each of its citizens “a right to participate in the choice of elected officials without restriction by any state because of race.” Relying on U.S. v. Classic, Reed insisted that a state could not nullify this right “through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election.” Justice Owen J. Roberts, who had authored the Grovey decision twelve years earlier, wrote a dissenting opinion which argued by reversing itself so soon after Grovey v. Townsend, the High Court “should now itself become the breeder of fresh doubt and confusion in the public mind as to the stability of our institutions.”


Following Smith v. Allwright, political parties across the country began to desegregate their membership and voting requirements. In later years Lonnie Smith would become head of the Houston NAACP and a Democratic Precinct Captain of the precinct where he had initially been denied a ballot. Thurgood Marshall, who would consider Smith one of his most significant legal victories, would become the first African-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Discussion Questions


1.  Can state legislatures pass laws that violate Supreme Court precedents?


2. Did Texas violate Smith’s constitutional rights via the Democratic Party?


3. Are the individual parties under the same Congressional authority as the state, or are they subject to oversight?


4. How was the “White Primary” affected by this case?


5. What changed between Grovey v. Townsend and Smith v. Allwright that caused the court to gain a new perspective?


NAACP: Smith v. Allwright

OYEZ: Smith v Allwright


National Park Service: Racial Voting Rights


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