Smith v. Allwright

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Smith v. Allwright
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Reargued January 12, 1944
Decided April 3, 1944
Full case nameSmith v. Allwright, Election Judge, et al.
Citations321 U.S. 649 (more)
64 S. Ct. 757; 88 L. Ed. 987
States may not permit or conduct race based primary elections and must be open to voters of all races.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Harlan F. Stone
Associate Justices
Owen Roberts · Hugo Black
Stanley F. Reed · Felix Frankfurter
William O. Douglas · Frank Murphy
Robert H. Jackson · Wiley B. Rutledge
Case opinions
MajorityReed, joined by Stone, Black, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge
ConcurrenceFrankfurter(in the judgment of the court only)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XV
This case overturned a previous ruling or rulings
Grovey v. Townsend (1935)

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 parties to set their internal rules, including the use of white primaries. The court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to delegate its authority over elections to parties in order to allow discrimination to be practiced. This ruling affected all other states where the party used the white primary rule.

The Democratic Party had effectively 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; the party 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 the state legislatures of the former Confederacy effectively disenfranchised blacks in the period from 1890 to 1908, by new constitutions and laws raising barriers to voter registration and voting. This crippled the Republican Party in most southern states, and resulted in the only competitive elections being held as 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. (The poll tax also had the effect of excluding poor whites.)


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 regulate elections 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 equal protection under the law (according to the Fourteenth Amendment) and found in his favor. It said that by delegating its authority to the Democratic Party to regulate its primaries, the state was allowing discrimination to be practiced, which was unconstitutional.

This decision enabled the revival of black participation in Texas politics, for those voters who could get through the discriminatory voter registration process. Smith's efforts inspired Barbara Jordan, a Fifth Ward resident who would later 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]