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Smith v. Allwright

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that excluding African Americans from primaries was an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.


In Grovey v. Townsend (1935), the Supreme Court found that the federal government had no authority over primaries, which were under the direction of private political parties. In United States v. Classic (1941), however, the Court ruled that Congress could ensure the integrity of primaries when they were an integral part of the process for electing members of Congress. Encouraged by Classic, Lonnie Smith, an African American dentist of Houston, sued an election judge for refusing to allow him to vote in a Democratic primary. Thurgood Marshall, counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, argued the case on behalf of Smith. By an 8-1 margin, the Court reversed Grovey. Taking a broad view of state action, Justice Stanley F. Reed reasoned that primaries were “conducted by the party under state statutory authority,” which meant that the party's discrimination constituted a form of state action. Because the state had established many rules for the primaries, the state had endorsed and participated in the abridgment of the right to vote because of race, which violated the Fifteenth Amendment. Justice Owen J. Roberts, the author of the majority opinion in Grovey, dissented. The Smith decision is considered one of the major victories of the early Civil Rights movement. It was especially significant in the development of the public function concept, which views many activities as state actions even when performed by private actors. Texas Democrats tried to circumvent Smith by establishing the Jaybird Democratic Association, but the effort was invalidated in Terry v. Adams (1953), the last of the white primary cases.