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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The tumultuous 1950 Senate Primary race


The Legislative Building located in Raleigh houses North Carolina's General Assembly.

Primary season is upon us here in North Carolina, and many will head to the polls on May 17 to nominate candidates for hundreds of offices up for election in the fall. 

Among the vacancies is an open Senate seat; incumbent Republican Richard Burr is set to retire at the end of this year. 

Polling among Democrats has shown that though many remain undecided, former state supreme court justice Cheri Beasley is the favorite pick among voters. The Republican field is much more crowded, with GOP voters divided between the Trump-endorsed Rep. Ted Budd, former governor Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker. The campaign has been characterized by mudslinging and accusations of disloyalty to conservatism amongst the candidates.

Despite the bitterness of this primary campaign, it does not hold a candle to the pure rage that metastasized during the 1950 Democratic primary for that year’s Senate election. 

Like all states in the South at the time, North Carolina was a one-party state. The Democratic Party held a grip on state power. By that time, a Republican had not been elected to statewide office in half of a century, so the true election happened in the Democratic primary. The main contenders for the Democratic nomination in the 1950 race were conservative Raleigh lawyer Willis Smith and the liberal incumbent Dr. Frank Porter Graham. 

Starting his career in North Carolina as an associate professor of history at UNC, Graham ascended through the faculty ranks to eventually become the UNC System’s president in 1930. His presidency was characterized by his liberalism; he rebelled against conservatives in the state government by allowing Black figures like Langston Hughes to speak at the University and overturned the medical school’s cap on Jewish students in 1933. 

Throughout his tenure, he would sign his name onto a number of liberal and left-wing causes, including the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, a pro-integration group he spearheaded from 1938 to 1948. During the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Graham served as a member of the War Labor Board and later served on President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. 

While Graham served as a figurehead of the liberal wing of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Smith represented its right flank. 

Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives during the early years of The Great Depression, Willis Smith was a highly successful lawyer and served as the head of the American Bar Association at one point. After the Second World War, he served as an observer at the Nuremberg Trials and served on President Truman’s Amnesty Board, reviewing the cases of draft dodgers. As a lawyer, he represented major life insurance companies, banks, railways and industrial firms. In counterbalance to Graham’s liberal views, Smith’s supporters saw in him a figure who would defend “traditional southern values.” 

Each candidate received backing from powerful actors. Graham received support from the prominent Raleigh News & Observer, Governor W. Kerr Scott, President Truman and liberal icon Eleanor Roosevelt. Smith, on the other hand, was backed by conservative Democrats and a multitude of special interests, including the textile industry, the Carolina Power and Light Company, and a wide swath of judges across the state. 

As a fight between a progressive liberal and a traditionalist conservative, the primary would be a slugfest. Waged at the onset of Senator Joe McCarthy’s vendetta against alleged communist infiltration of the government, Smith’s supporters accused Graham of being a communist — or at least sympathetic to their cause. 

In the June 22 issue of Brevard’s Transylvania Times, Smith supporters took out a full-page ad that charged Graham with supporting a civil rights bill that would “destroy individual freedom” by barring businesses from engaging in discriminatory hiring practices. The ad also charges Graham with supporting the integration of public schools, “socialized medicine” and runaway deficit spending.

Finally, they state, “he would lead us to the path of socialism!”

In addition to traditional mudslinging, the Smith campaign engaged in a number of other underhanded tactics to drain support from Graham. Several days before the election, many North Carolinians discovered a postcard that appeared to be from the NAACP headquarters, saying that Graham had “done much to advance the place of the Negro in North Carolina.” 

The postcards were found to be a fraud that was sent out by Smith supporters to drum up race-based hatred in the state’s white electorate. 

In response, Graham employed a number of different tactics to shore up support. Governor Scott used his control over liquor importations to extract money for Graham’s campaign from distillers in the northeast. President Truman sent influential Democratic leaders into the state to build support for the incumbent senator.  In the textile town of Kannapolis, where the Smith-supporting mill owners had blocked Graham supporters from handing out literature, the campaign drummed up a private plan to drop leaflets on the workers in the mill below.

During the first round of the primary on May 27, Senator Graham held the lead, capturing 48.7 percent of the vote. In the campaign leading up to the second round, the conflict grew even nastier. 

Smith supporters handed out leaflets reading, “White People Wake Up.” 

The circular continued: “Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and daughters in your mills and factories? Negroes eating beside you in all public eating places? Negroes riding beside you, your wife and your daughters in buses, cabs and trains? … Negroes going to white schools and white children going to Negro schools?”

The literature claimed that it was the future Senator Graham desired and that if the voter wanted a different outcome, they should vote for Willis Smith, who they claimed would “uphold the traditions of the South.”

After a brutal and poisonous campaign during the second round, Willis prevailed, carrying 281,114 votes to Graham’s 261,789. One of the most progressive southern senators had been tossed out in favor of an out-and-proud segregationist.

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The 1950 Democratic senate primary showed that, despite whatever progress had been made up until that point, North Carolina remained a bitterly divided state and racial animus remained a caustic force in state politics. 

North Carolina liberalism would be shunted aside for decades, and conservatives like Jesse Helms, Sam Ervin and Lauch Faircloth dominated the state political scene for decades to come.