Smith v. Allwright

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004), Michael Klarman underlines the main reasons why the court’s decision in Smith v. Allwright (1944) changed so drastically from Grovey v. Townsend, nine years prior. “This shift, within the short span of nine years, from a unanimous decision sustaining white primaries to a near-unanimous ruling invalidating them, is unprecedented in U.S. constitutional history.” (Klarman, 200)

Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Smith v. Allwright confronted the issue of all white primaries in the state of Texas. Lonnie Smith was an educated black man who had lived in Texas his entire life and had always voted for the Democratic candidate. However, in Texas and other southern states, blacks were banned from voting in the Democratic primary elections. The primary election was extremely important in Texas since it was a one-party state, and therefore, the results would determine the winner of the general election. Smith and the NAACP brought the issue to the Supreme Court “holding that the Texas Democratic Party’s racial restriction on voting in its primaries was ‘in violation of the 15th amendment.’” (Valelly, 158) The court ruled 8-1 in favor of Smith. This victory was crucial as it “laid the groundwork for the [NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF)] 1954 victory over segregated education in Brown v. Board of Education.” (Zelden, 3)

Klarman examines why the Supreme Court had such a dramatic shift in their opinions in the nine years between Grovey and Smith. In chapter four, Klarman looks at the context of the United States during the 1940s and reflects why it was so significant in the outcome of Smith. The United States had entered in World War II and blacks were fighting in a segregated army against fascism. Many people saw the “hypocrisy of fighting abroad for what it is not willing to accept at home” (Klarman, 175) and blacks “complained of the ‘mock democracy’ for which they were being asked to risk their lives.” (Klarman, 175) Because of this, Klarman states, “the justices cannot have missed the contradiction between a war purportedly being fought for democratic ends and the pervasive disfranchisement of southern blacks.” (Klarman, 200) Klarman also reasoned that one of the reasons for why the court made its decision in Smith was based on popular consensus. It was not only northerners that felt this way, but “even southern whites were far less committed to preserving black disfranchisement than they were to maintaining school segregation.” (Klarman, 200)

Klarman also mentions that the Court had been rearranged almost entirely since Grovey in 1935. Justice Owen Roberts, who had been apart of both courts, was the only one to vote against the invalidating of all white primaries. Chief Justice Stone had also been apart of the Grovey court, although, unlike Roberts, he had changed his opinion between those nine years. However, “the near-unanimous result is misleading. [Robert] Jackson and [Hugo] Black initially voted with Roberts…to sustain Texas’s white primary.” (Klarman, 199) Other court members included Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, Frank Murphy, William Douglas and Wiley Rutledge.

There are several books in the Dickinson Library concerning the issue of black disfranchisement and the Smith v. Allwright case. Two of the more recent books on this subject include Charles Zelden’s The Battle for the Black Ballot: Smith v. Allwright and the Deafeat of the Texas All-White Primary (University Press of Kansas, 2004) and Richard Valelly’s The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (University of Chicago Press, 2004). Zelden goes into discussing Thurgood Marshall’s and the NAACP’s role in the Smith case and how it marked a significant moment in the civil rights movement. “The victory in Smith was the first in a series of legal victories in the late 1940s and early 1950s….all of which laid the groundwork for the LDF’s 1954 victory over segregated education in Brown v. Board of Education.” (Zelden, 3) In Valelly’s book, he offers a comparison of the two reconstruction movements, the first after the Civil War, and the second being the Civil Rights Movement, and the changing of race relations in the United States. Valelly believes that Smith v. Allwright marks the beginning of the second reconstruction.

Kevin McMahon offers an interesting view in his book, Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown (University of Chicago Press, 2004), which can be found in google books. McMahon believes that “the Roosevelt administration established a common bond with the goals of legal reform groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU and at times fought hand in hand with them to legally sabotage the constitutionally protected system of southern white supremacy.” (McMahon, 7) McMahon uses Smith as a key example for his argument.


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