The Battle for the Black Ballot
Smith v. Allwright and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary
Charles L. Zelden
The history of voting rights in America is a checkerboard marked by dogged progress against persistent prejudice toward an expanding inclusiveness. The Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright is a crucial chapter in that broader story and marked a major turning point for the modern civil rights movement. Charles Zelden's concise and thoughtful retelling of this episode reveals why.
Denied membership in the Texas Democratic Party by popular consensus, party rules, and (from 1923 to 1927) state statutes, Texas blacks were routinely turned away from voting in the Democratic primary in the first decades of the twentieth century. Given that Texas was a one-party state and that the primary effectively determined who held office, this meant the total exclusion of Texas blacks from the political process. This practice went unchecked until 1940, when Lonnie Smith, a black dentist from Houston, fought his exclusion by election judge S. E. Allwright in the 1940 Democratic Primary. Defeated in the lower courts, Smith finally found justice in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 that the Democratic Party and its primary were not "private and voluntary" and, thus, were duly bound by constitutional protections governing the electoral process and the rights of all citizens.
“Provides the reader with an excellent overview of this history . . . Presents the complex legal and constitutional issues in a highly readable way. . . . A very good introduction to the history of the struggle against the white primary. Everybody who is interested in this topic will benefit from reading Zelden’s book.”
—American Journal of Legal History
“Zelden lucidly renders a complicated legal history with crisp prose and rich detail. The book is of interest to a broad audience, particularly those studying legal, political, and African American history, and should be useful in a variety of undergraduate courses.”
—Journal of African American HistorySee all reviews...
“A finely crafted summary of an important civil rights case. . . . A first-rate study that should remain the definitive one for some time, hardly an insignificant accomplishment.”
—Journal of Southern History
“Zelden’s book is fine civil rights history. It is also a theoretically informed case study of group litigation for social change that can be read with considerable profit by analysts of how and when the legal process and political conflict overlap.”
—H-Net Book Reviews
“Tells an important, interesting story and chronicles the great lengths that Texas and many other states went to in order to keep African Americans from voting.”
“Zelden skillfully recounts the story of the rise, evolution, and decline of the all-white primary (AWP), one of a litany of devices once used by whites to deprive blacks of political power across the South. . . . Zelden’s book cogently weaves a series of important events into a compelling story of American constitutional development that gives due regard to all of the story's characters. . . . Students often read U.S. Supreme Court decisions with the presumption that there must be one right answer. Zelden’s account of the Smith case offers an accessible antidote to that sort of thinking by highlighting the contingency and agency that produced and shaped the case.”
—Law & Politics Book Review
“Zelden places this landmark decision in historical context that deepens our comprehension of the racial politics of law. . . . A splendid contribution to American political, social, and legal history.”
—Darlene Clark Hine, author of Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas
“A richly detailed and eminently readable account of one of the first triumphs in the struggle for racial equality. Highly recommended!”
—Tinsley Yarbrough, author of Race and Redistricting: The Shaw-Cromartie Cases
“An important story, told clearly and crisply, about one of the giant judicial landmarks in civil rights history.”
—Steven Lawson, author of Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom MovementSee fewer reviews...
While the initial impetus of the case may have been the wish of one man to exercise his right to vote, the real meaning of Smith's challenge to the Texas all white primary lies at the heart of the entire civil rights revolution. One of the first significant victories for the NAACP's newly formed Legal Defense Fund against Jim Crow segregation, it provided the conceptual foundation which underlay Thurgood Marshall's successful arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. It was also viewed by Marshall, looking back on a long and storied career, as one of his most important personal victories.
As Zelden shows, the Smith decision attacked the intractable heart of segregation, as it redrew the boundary between public and private action in constitutional law and laid the groundwork for many civil rights cases to come. It also redefined the Court's involvement in what had been a hands-off area of "political questions" and foreshadowed its participation in voter reapportionment cases.
A landmark case in the evolution of Southern race relations and politics and for voting rights in general, Smith also provides a telling example of how the clash between national concerns and local priorities often acts as a lightning rod for resolving controversial issues. Zelden's lucid account of the controversies and conflicts surrounding Smith should refine and reinvigorate our understanding of a crucial moment in American history.