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U.S. Supreme Court dooms white primary

April
03
1944

On this day in 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Smith v. Allwright ruled the so-called "white primary" unconstitutional. The case originated in 1940, when Houston dentist Lonnie E. Smith attempted to vote in the Democratic primary in his Harris County precinct. As an African American, he was denied a ballot under the white primary rules of the time. Smith, with the assistance of attorneys supplied by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (including the future United States Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall), filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in 1942. Smith petitioned for redress for the denial of his rights under the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth amendments by the precinct election judge, S. E. Allwright. Following an unfavorable ruling in the district court, Smith's attorneys lodged appeals that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. That court reversed the prior decisions against Smith by a margin of eight to one. The Smith decision did not end all attempts to limit black political participation but did virtually end the white primary in Texas. The number of African Americans registered to vote in Texas increased from 30,000 in 1940 to 100,000 in 1947.

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