John Henry McCray and other South Carolina African American leaders formed the Progressive Democratic Party for the purpose of challenging the white primary system. The system, established in many southern states during the 1890s, excluded African Americans from voting in state primaries which selected representatives to the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and state officials. Although the 1944 Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Allwright decided that white primaries were unconstitutional, southern states such as South Carolina ignored the ruling. During the summer of 1946, The Negro Citizens Committee, formed in 1942 by Columbia NAACP President Rev. E.A. Adams and other members of the state conference, conducted a voter registration campaign to open the Democratic Party primary to African Americans.
George Elmore and other African Americans attempted to vote in the August 1947 primary but were denied. Harold Boulware, head of the South Carolina NAACP conference legal committee, filed a class-action suit, Elmore v. Rice. Judge J. Waties Waring’s ruling opened the primary to all South Carolinians. The State ignored the ruling and in 1948, Judge Waring issued an injunction mandating that the state Democratic Party open its membership rolls and allow all parties, without regard to “race, color, creed, or condition,” to participate in the August primary. The state’s Democratic Party Executive Committee required an oath of voters to support the social, religious, and educational separation of the races. At least six county committees ignored the oath and registered African American voters. Judge Waring’s court rejected the oath and his decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. On July 23, 1948, Democratic Party chair, W.P. Baskin advised county chairs to enroll all constitutionally qualified electors. Before the books closed, 35,000 African Americans had registered to vote.
African Americans waited, often for hours, to exercise their right to vote in the 1948 Democratic primary.
Photo courtesy of the South Carolina Library, University of South Carolina