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Voting Rights

Despite many barriers, African Americans in South Carolina advocated for their right to vote. The state’s Democratic Party was so dominant that the all-White primary effectively served as the election for all government offices. In 1946, George Elmore of Columbia sued the Democratic Party for the right to vote in the primary. Federal Judge J. Waties Waring ruled in his favor in the case of Elmore v. Rice. As a result of that case and Brown v. Baskin, in 1948 over 30,000 Black South Carolinians voted in the Democratic Primary for the first time. 

Black South Carolinians also organized voter registration and elections campaigns to encourage people to vote. Educator Septima Clark established Citizenship Schools to teach Black people literacy skills and civics.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which helped guarantee the right to vote for African Americans across the country.

August 14, 1946

George Elmore successfully registered to vote in the South Carolina Democratic Party primary. However, he was then denied the right to vote. He sued the Democratic Party. Federal Judge J. Waties Waring found in Elmore’s favor, making Elmore v. Rice the final blow to segregated primaries in the United States after the Supreme Court case Smith v. Allwright.

Courtesy of Richland Library

“Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood is more than a meaningless word at the end of a prayer, but the first order of business on every legislative agenda.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Kingstree, SC, 1966

The Battle for Voting Rights

After the 1946 ruling in Elmore v. Rice, the fight for voting rights was not yet over. In 1948, David Brown and others from Beaufort County, S.C., sued to be able to vote, with Harold R. Boulware, Edward R. Dudley, Thurgood Marshall, and Constance Baker Motley as their attorneys. Brown v. Baskin cleared away many of the final barriers to vote in South Carolina for African American men.
Flyer inviting men and women to a Progressive Democratic Party meeting.

1944 As the White-dominated South Carolina Democratic Party kept African Americans from participating, journalist and activist John McCray founded the Progressive Democratic Party to provide an avenue for Black organizing and mobilizing.
Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library

John Henry McCray

Journalist, news publisher and activist

John Henry McCray

Journalist, news publisher and activist

John Henry McCray (1910–1987) co-founded the Progressive Democratic Party.

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A line of African American men and woman wait to vote.

1948 In 1946, George Elmore sued the South Carolina Democratic Party to end the all-White primary. In his 1947 ruling on Elmore v. Rice, Judge J. Waties Waring of the federal district court ruled that this violated the 14th, 15th, and 17th Amendment Rights of African Americans.
Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library

A group of men and woman stand in line waiting to vote.

1948 After the 1947 ruling in Elmore v. Rice, the South Carolina Democratic Party was no longer allowed to prevent people from voting in the primary based on race. However, the S.C. Democratic Party continued to search for ways to prevent Black people from voting. David Brown sued the State Chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, and Judge J. Waties Waring ruled in 1948 that the S.C. Democratic Party violated the U.S. Constitution. This ruling marked the legal end of the all-White primary in South Carolina.
Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library

A group of men and women stand outdoors around a ballot box.

1948 George Elmore, second from left, registers to vote after winning Elmore v. Rice. Powerful White South Carolinians sought to punish Elmore for his activism. Economic reprisals pushed him from his home and forced him to close his business.
Published in the Pittsburgh Courier, 1948

A group of men and women stand outdoors around a ballot box.

1948 Voters wait in line in Columbia in the 1948 South Carolina Democratic Primary after the Elmore v. Rice and Brown v. Baskin decisions.
Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library

George Elmore stands in front of his shop front

George Elmore

Entrepreneur and political activist

George Elmore

Entrepreneur and political activist

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In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Kingstree, South Carolina to encourage people to vote.

Courtesy of Moving Image Research Collections

“You have the ballot, go ahead and use it wisely.”

John H. McCray Editor, The Lighthouse and Informer

The Struggle Continues

In the 1950s, teacher and organizer Septima Clark led the creation of Citizenship Schools in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. She believed that “literacy means liberation” and worked with Esau Jenkins to establish the first Johns Island Citizenship school in 1957. Bernice Robinson served as the first teacher.

These schools became a model for voter and literacy education across the South, including the Freedom Schools. Efforts to encourage voter registration and provide education continued long after legal barriers to voting were removed.
An African American woman speaks into a microphone.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Teacher and civil rights activist

Septima Poinsette Clark

Teacher and civil rights activist

Septima P. Clark (1898-1987), from Charleston, South Carolina, pioneered grassroots citizenship education, which linked skills like reading and writing with political organizing.

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1956-1957 Highlander Report cover featuring Septima Clark.

1957 Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins started the first Johns Island Citizenship school, with Bernice Robinson as the teacher. These schools taught literacy and helped prepare adults to vote.
Courtesy of South Carolina Political Collections

  • Allen University students engage in a Get Out the Vote campaign. Courtesy of South Carolina Political Collections
    Students with voting signs in an Allen University vehicle.
  • To encourage people to register to vote, groups like CORE distributed flyers, posters, and other materials. Courtesy of South Carolina Political Collections
    Poster: a brown hand breaks a chain with a mallet labeled
  • Jackie and Thomas Williams (left and center) participate in a voter registration campaign. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, civil rights organizations continued to organize to register people to vote and encourage them to exercise their voting rights. Courtesy of South Carolina Political Collections
    Young adults with signs encouraging voting hand out documents.
  • August 15, 1964–People wait at the Richland County Courthouse to register to vote. Courtesy of Richland Library
    A long line of people wait to register to vote.
  • Modjeska Monteith Simkins registered to vote in 1928, although she was prevented from voting until years later. Courtesy of South Carolina Political Collections
    1928 Richland County voter registration card for M. M. Monteith.