The Quiet Years, War and Peace

The Demise of the White Primary

A far more significant victory for African American voting rights came in 1944 when the Supreme Court struck down the infamous white primary. For several decades, Democratic primaries across the South had been open to whites only—and because the Democratic Party was the only viable party in the South, keeping blacks from the primaries meant they could not vote in the only election that mattered. Since it could be argued that the Democratic Party was a private organization, such restrictions did not seem to violate the 15th Amendment, and made for an efficient way to ensure black disenfranchisement.

The Supreme Court had upheld the practice of white primaries in the landmark case Grovey v. Townsend in 1935, ruling that private rather than state actions were not subject to constitutional prohibitions. But in 1944, the Supreme Court reversed Grovey v. Townsend in its decision in Smith v. Allwright. The court ruled that excluding African Americans from Democratic primaries was unconstitutional. The opinion relied on a case from three years earlier, U.S. v. Classic et al., that had extended the Constitution’s implicit guarantee of a right to vote in Article I, Sections 2 and 4, to primaries as well as general elections.

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the white primary was evidence of shifting sentiment. A lot had changed between 1935 and 1944: only two of the justices who had ruled in Grovey v. Townsend were still on the Court at the time of Smith, and Roosevelt’s appointees included experienced liberal politicians well aware of the developing socio-political situation—and of the links between the ideological dimensions of World War II and the question of African American suffrage. Additionally, the New Deal had ushered in an era when both Congress and the Court were far more willing to assert the power of the federal government than ever before—not just in voting, but in almost every domain imaginable. 

Smith v. Allwright dramatically changed the landscape of the franchise and voting law in the South; it was the first crack in the thick armor that white Southern politicians has constructed to keep blacks from the polls. Pioneering civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to argue the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education before serving on the Supreme Court, felt that Smith v. Allwright was his most important legal victory. 

But there was still a long way to go, and the South was still the hostile place for African Americans it had always been. Most potential African American voters remained reluctant to try to go to the polls for fear of white intimidation and retribution. But tens of thousands of African Americans did register for Democratic primaries throughout the South—desperate for any way to make their political voices heard. 

The white primary—the simplest and most effective way that white southerners had devised to keep African Americans out of political life, had been swept away, never to return. Southern politicians were enraged by the decision, calling it a gross overreach of federal authority. Many states tried their hardest to circumvent Smith v. Allwright, repealing all laws governing primary elections—basically attempting to define them more closely as private clubs, in which discrimination was still legal, but the court continued to uphold Smith v. Allwright through subsequent rulings. With the most reliable discriminatory tool no longer at their disposal, they immediately set to the task of shoring up the other racial barriers to the franchise. But in just over two decades, most of those barriers would be swept away as well.