Smith v. Allwright

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Smith v. Allwright
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Reargued January 12, 1944
Decided April 3, 1944
Full case name Smith v. Allwright, Election Judge, et al.
Citations 321 U.S. 649 (more)
Primary elections must be open to voters of all races.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Reed, joined by Stone, Black, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge
Concurrence Frankfurter (in the judgment of the court only)
Dissent Roberts

Smith v. Allwright , 321 U.S. 649 (1944), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court with regard to voting rights and, by extension, racial desegregation. It overturned the Texas state law that authorized the Democratic Party to set its internal rules, including the use of white primaries. The court ruled that the state had allowed discrimination to be practiced by delegating its authority to the Democratic Party. This affected all other states where the party used the rule.

The Democrats had excluded minority voter participation by this means, another device for legal disenfranchisement of blacks across the South beginning in the late 19th century.


Lonnie E. Smith, a black dentist from the Fifth Ward area of Houston,[1] and a voter in Harris County, Texas, sued county election official S. S. Allwright for the right to vote in a primary election being conducted by the Democratic Party. He challenged the 1923 state law that authorized the party to establish its internal rules; it required all voters in its primary to be white.

The Democratic Party had controlled politics in the South since the late 19th century (see Solid South) and several state legislatures effectively disenfranchised blacks in the period from 1890 to 1910. As a result, most Southern elections were decided by the outcome of the Democratic Party primary. Texas had used poll taxes and the white primary to exclude nearly all blacks, Mexican Americans, and other minorities from voting. Representing the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall had argued this case in favor of Lonnie E. Smith.

In the earlier case of Grovey v. Townsend (1935), brought on similar grounds, the Court had ruled against the plaintiff, saying the Democratic Party was a private organization with the ability to set its own rules. Grovey's exclusion from the primary was based on the Democratic State Convention in 1932 having established its white primary.


Texas claimed that the Democratic Party was a private organization that could set its own rules of membership. Smith argued that the state by its law had delegated some of its authority to the Democratic Party, which essentially disenfranchised him by denying him the ability to vote in what was the only meaningful election in his jurisdiction.

The decision[edit]

The Court agreed that the restricted primary denied Smith his protection under the law and found in his favor, saying that the state had allowed discrimination to be practiced by delegating its authority to the Democratic Party.

This started black participation in Texas politics. Smith's efforts inspired Barbara Jordan, a Fifth Ward resident who would become a black politician in Texas.[1]


  1. ^ a b West, Richard. "Only the Strong Survive" (Archive). Texas Monthly. Emmis Communications, February 1979. Volume 7, No. 2. ISSN 0148-7736. START: p. 94. CITED: p. 104.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hine, Darlene Clark (1979). Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas. Millwood, NY: KTO Press. ISBN 0527407585. 
  • Klarman, Michael J. (2001). "The White Primary Rulings: A Case Study in the Consequences of Supreme Court Decisionmaking". Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 29 (1): 55–107. 

External links[edit]

Works related to Smith v. Allwright at Wikisource

  • Text of Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia