The 1950 Smith-Graham Senate Race

Written By Jonathan Martin

In 1950, the primary Senate election between Willis Smith and Frank Porter Graham marked an important moment in North Carolina political history. After the death of Senator J. Melville Broughton on March 6, 1949, one of North Carolina’s Senate seats was left vacant. A political scrap ensued between Smith and Graham, as the state’s Democrat party split over conservative and liberal ideas.  

Franklin P. Graham was born in Fayetteville in 1886 and he served as president of the University of North Carolina before his senate nomination. Governor W. Kerr Scott selected Graham as his choice candidate because Graham was an educator and he was a liberal progressive on race and social programs. Graham, in direct contrast to his opponent Smith, was believed by many in North Carolina to be “the most renowned southern liberal of his time” (Powell, p. 1050).

Willis Smith, born in Virginia in 1887, and according to historian William Powell he was a member of “the conservative ‘plutocracy’ that had governed North Carolina since the 1930s” (p. 1050). Before his Senate run, Smith served as Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and president of the American Bar Association. Smith was a conservative Democrat who was a Raleigh attorney at the time he decided to enter the 1950 political contest.

As a progressive North Carolina governor, Scott visualized an opportunity in the vacate Senate seat, and he decided to nominate Frank Graham for the position in early 1950. Soon after Graham announced he was running for the Senate, North Carolina media outlets started berating the candidate. However, Graham drew support through Governor Scott, President Truman, and Jonathan Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, all of whom benefited his campaign.

Several candidates emerged to challenge Graham in the 1950 Democrat primary election. Candidates Olla Boyd, a Pinetown farmer, and Robert R. Reynolds, a former U.S. Senator, sought election in the primary. However, these two candidates did not prove as threatening as Willis Smith, who entered the race in February 1950.

When Smith entered the election race, he started with his political attacks. Smith’s campaign labeled Graham as a socialist and a supporter of federally enforced integration. Although Graham refrained from attacking Smith personally, his campaign argued that the rich lawyer was disconnected from North Carolina’s working class.

In May 1950, Graham won the Democratic primary, but he was unsuccessful in securing the majority vote. Graham had received 48.9% of primary votes, Smith secured 40.5% of the votes, while Reynolds and Boyd had taken 10.6% of the votes. At the time, North Carolina election law allowed the second-place candidate a runoff, but Smith was hesitant about continuing his campaign.

For several weeks, Smith considered if he should try another primary election against Graham. During his deliberation, the Supreme Court’s landmark Sweatt v. Painter decision stirred racial concern among North Carolina citizens. The Painter decision was one of the first cases that led to the end of racial segregation in the United States education system. After the decision, many North Carolinians grew concerned about the integration of African-Americans in the state’s public schools.

Jesse Helms, future U.S. senator, realized the potential for segregationist voters to support Smith. As the news manager for WRAL radio in Raleigh, Helms led an effective advertising campaign that called for supporters to gather at Willis Smith’s house to urge him to call for a runoff. After the rally, Smith, with increased enthusiasm, secured additional campaign funds, eventually leading to his call for a second primary election.

The second course of the Smith-Graham race proved as intense as the first primary. Smith painted Graham as a communist supporter, and his campaign used bloc voting (when a group comes together and votes together on an important issue or candidate) to describe why Graham obtained strong voting returns in Durham and other black communities in the earlier election. In addition, Smith’s campaign issued a “White People Wake Up” flyer that accused Graham of favoring “race-mingling,” furthering the damage to the candidate’s campaign.

Graham never fully recovered from Smith’s mudslinging. Graham’s supporters, such as future governor Terry Sanford, sought to proclaim Graham’s image as an educator concerned with North Carolina’s social and economic future. However, Smith’s racial and communist attacks caused irreparable damage. William Powell writes that the election grew worse for Graham as “opponents verbally attacked Graham on the stump, and his backers received threatening telephone calls” (p. 1051).

Smith won the second primary, obtaining 281,114 votes to Graham’s 261,789. Many white voters put their support behind Smith; his campaign had succeeded in emphasizing Graham’s support of socialistic and integration policies. William Powell writes that “the campaign was a triumph of tradition over liberalism and undermined North Carolina’s image as progress on race issues” (p. 1051).

In November 1950, Smith went on the beat out Republican E. R. Gavin to win his seat as a U.S. Senator.