Texas History Minute -- Smith
Feb 11, 2024
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It often takes courage to stand up for a principle.  Because of people who do, the world starts to change.  One Texas dentist, Dr. Lonnie Smith, changed the way Americans vote.  A 1944 Supreme Court decision forced Texas and states across the country to change election laws.

Dr. Lonnie E. Smith was born in 1901 in Yoakum, a small community east of San Antonio.  When he was still young, the family moved to the East Texas community of Providence near Palestine.  He graduated from Providence High School in 1919, a rare achievement in a time when many communities still did not have high schools.

Smith enrolled at what is now Prairie View A&M University where he nurtured his interests in the sciences.  In 1921, he enrolled at the Meharry School of Dentistry in Tennessee, one of the few dental schools in the South that would accept African-American students at the time.  He received his dental degree in 1924.  After graduation, he married Janie Mae Dunn, and the two settled in Galveston.  In 1929, after a few years of practicing with Dr. E. A. Etta, Smith and his wife moved to Houston where Smith would open a new practice.  By any measure, Smith was successful and was a respected, civic-minded citizen.

In 1940, the primary election was held in July.  Elections for U. S. Senate, all statewide offices, legislative positions, and a host of Harris County offices were being held.  On Election Day, Smith went to his polling location to vote.  However, an election judge, S. E. Allwright, refused to let him vote because he was black.  

The primary election had only been established in Texas in 1905.  In 1923, the state legislature passed a law declaring political parties to be voluntary associations and ordering them to establish rules of operation and membership.  Conservative leaders, following other state party organizations in the South, ordered that only white voters could participate in the primary, what came to be called the “white primary.”

The South was entirely a one-party region.  All political power rested with the Democratic Party.  But the party was beset by numerous competing factions, from reform-minded liberals to die-hard conservatives and everything in between.  The only primary election in Texas at the time was the Democratic Party.  While the Republican Party did exist, it often did not bother to offer candidates for many elections and never held a primary.  In Texas in the 1930s, Republican candidates often received less than 10% of the vote in statewide contests.  In the 1940 gubernatorial election, when Smith was attempting to vote, Democratic nominee W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel won re-election in the November general election with 94% of the vote.  As a result, all political races in the state were decided in the Democratic Primary.

After the stinging rebuke at the polls, Smith began talking with civil rights officials with the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  NAACP lawyers had been going across the South challenging segregation laws and voting restrictions to undermine the Jim Crow system.  A team led by future U. S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall agreed to take Smith’s case and filed the case Smith v. Allwright in federal court in 1942.

By 1944, the case reached the Supreme Court.  Marshall argued that Smith’s rights were denied because of the white primary arrangement.  In April, the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision agreeing with Marshall that race restrictions were a violation of Smith’s right to equal treatment under the law as espoused in the Constitution.  The white primary was thus unconstitutional, and the primary would now be open to all races in all states.

Because of the Supreme Court ruling, the nascent civil rights movement was energized.  Marshall’s strategy of using the court system to undermine the obstacles facing minorities began to prove to be successful.  He later considered this his most important case, one setting the stage for other civil rights rulings.  Within ten years, segregation in the schools would be declared unconstitutional. 

Within twenty years, voting restrictions for minorities were eliminated under federal law.  The number of registered African-American voters increased rapidly, from 200,000 across the South in 1940 to 800,000 in 1948.  By the 1960s, most African-American and Hispanics were registered to vote in the South.  Millions of citizens now had the ballot available to them, all starting with Smith’s case.

As for Smith, he was content to live a quiet life.  He voted faithfully in each election afterward.  He continued his dental practice and was active in local civic organizations and civil rights organizations.  He would regularly serve as a Democratic precinct committeeman, helping others exercise their own right to vote.  Smith died at his home in Houston in March 1971 at the age of 70.