Early voting is under way this week in North Carolina’s primary elections. So far there is not much excitement.

Sixty-two years ago we had a much different primary and run-off election experience. Voters came out in record numbers.

Today, a surprising number of people still remember that election and can tell you how the bitter struggle divided the state. Many of those who “remember” were not yet born in 1950. They know the story well because it is told over and over again and handed down from political generation to generation, sounding like an Old Testament story of God’s chosen people battling the Philistines.

North Carolina historians agree that the 1950 U. S. Senate primary between Frank Graham and Willis Smith helped define North Carolina politics.

To understand today’s North Carolina politics, learning about this contest is an essential task.

For a detailed version, read “Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina” by Julian Pleasants and Augustus Burns, published by the UNC Press in 1990 and still available in most public libraries.

In the meantime here are some basics about the Graham-Smith contest:

In 1949, Governor W. Kerr Scott appointed UNC President Graham to a vacant U. S. Senate seat. Graham was, for the times, a liberal on race and social issues. So conservative Democrats recruited Willis Smith to run against

Graham in the 1950 Democratic primary, the winner of which would face only token Republican opposition in November. Smith was a distinguished Raleigh attorney who had served as president of the American Bar Association. At the beginning of the campaign, both men enjoyed wide respect throughout the state—even from those who disagreed with them.
Graham led the first primary in May 1950 with 48.9 percent of the vote. Smith had 40.5 percent. In those days, unless a candidate reached 50 percent, the second place finisher could call for a run-off. At first Smith indicated he would not call for a run-off. Then his supporters, including young Jesse Helms, orchestrated an impressive show of public support that persuaded Smith to change his mind.

Smith’s campaign faced an enormous challenge in the run-off—how to persuade large numbers of working class Democrats to vote for a conservative business-oriented lawyer. If these folks voted their economic interests, they probably wouldn’t support Smith.

In 1950 two things would persuade many North Carolina whites to vote against their economic interests. They were race and communism.

Smith’s supporters used both issues. Although Smith distanced himself from his supporters’ tactics, they “played the race card.” Flyers, newspaper ads, and mail used crude inflammatory language to assert that Graham supported mixing the races in the workplace and everywhere else. And to a lesser degree, Smith’s followers played up Graham’s membership in organizations that were supposedly communist “fronts.”

Graham refused to respond in kind. But his supporters attempted, without success, to inflame voters against Smith’s “big business” leanings. In the end, Smith’s supporters’ tactics won the run-off for their candidate.

Why does the Graham-Smith contest continue to be significant? One reason is that several important recent political leaders cut their teeth in that battle. For instance, Jesse Helms worked vigorously on the Smith side and Terry Sanford took on one of the toughest precincts in Fayetteville for Graham. There are others, some still alive, who got their start in this campaign and still remember. But many more are indirect disciples of Graham or Smith, through political figures like Sanford and Helms.

Perhaps the battlefront is quiet this spring, but the war between the Smith and Graham sides is not over. It is still being fought, and it is not yet clear which side is really going to win.