Background on NAACP Thurgood Marshall & the FBI Military Desegregation  
Chambers v. Florida(1940) Smith v. Allwright(1943) Shelley v. Kraemer(1947) Sipuel v. Univ. of Oklahoma(1948) Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Smith v. Allwright (1943)

    African-Americans were officially given the right to vote in 1870 in the Fifteenth Amendment, which states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Yet in 1940 it was reported by Ralph Bunche, a UN undersecretary, that only 2.5 percent of African-Americans were voting.1 This was most likely because state officials around the U.S., and especially in the South, did nothing to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment; to the contrary, there were many methods of preventing African-Americans from voting. One was the poll tax, which few blacks could afford to pay. Another was a literacy test - with different tests for blacks and whites, the one for blacks much more difficult. Those who passed these requirements were often scared away from the ballots by threats of death at the hands of white mobs. Texas and several other states used perhaps the most effective way of keeping blacks out of the state elections - the white primary. The primary was when the Democratic party representative was chosen, and since the Deep South states, including Texas, were solidly Democratic, the winner of the primary was virtually always the winner of the state election. Thus, if blacks were kept out of the primary, their vote counted for naught in the state election in which they were allowed to participate.

    Marshall argued the case of Lonnie E. Smith, a dentist living in Texas, in 1941 for the right of blacks to be involved in the primaries. He lost the case to the Texan court. The court claimed that the Democratic party was a private institution, and therefore could had the right to choose its members.

    In 1943 Marshall appealed the case to the Supreme Court. He had been made more confident in his prosecution by the 1941 case in United States v. Classic, in which the Supreme Court had stated that “The Congress may at any time make or alter such regulations where the primary is by law made an integral part of the election machinery.”2 Marshall and the NAACP were also helped by the changing political atmosphere in the Supreme Court; many of the former conservative justices were being replaced by President Roosevelt’s more liberal justices.

    William Hastie, then a civilian aide to the Department of War and a close friend of Marshall’s, argued the case, with a significant amount of courtroom help from Marshall. He convinced the court that the primary elections were an essential part of the election process and that barring African-Americans from these elections was a violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The vote was eight to one in favor of Smith. By 1950, the number of blacks registered to vote had grown from 2.5 percent to 20 percent, and it kept rising. The Smith case eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suspended literacy tests, required the examination of any new voting laws in the states to ensure that they were not discriminatory, and made interfering with any voting law a criminal offense. Supporting this act was the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited poll taxes.

    Marshall later told his friends that he felt his success in Smith was his greatest victory and most lasting legacy. Professor Ward Elliot, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College in California, said on a NPR interview about Marshall that “Smith v. Allwright was an opening wedge, a new way of thinking which changed not only the political landscape of the South for blacks and for whites, but changed the judicial landscape of the country.”3

1 Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench (112)
2 Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench (114)
3 Author not available, Justice Marshall’s Most Memorable Case Reviewed., All Things Considered (NPR) 01-25-1993