By: Eleni Broadwell, Robert Clayton, Katherine Franco, Adenike Hickson, and Leila Silberstein
“Literacy Test (This test is to be given to anyone who cannot prove a fifth grade education). Do what you are told to do in each statement, nothing more, nothing less. Be careful as one wrong answer denotes failure of the test. You have 10 minutes to complete the test.”
These are the instructions for a literacy test given to many potential voters up until the 1960s. The first literacy tests were given in the 1890s throughout the American South. Literacy tests systematically blocked African Americans from voting. Between 40 and 60 percent of African Americas were illiterate at the time. After Louisiana adopted literacy tests and other disenfranchising measures, the number of black voters went from 130,000 in 1896 to 1,342 in 1904. To prevent the literacy tests from affecting poor white voters, Louisiana enacted a Grandfather Clause in 1898. The Grandfather Clause declared that if a person was eligible to vote before 1867 or if his grandfather could vote, then he did not have to take the literacy test. The Supreme Court abolished Grandfather Clauses in the South in 1939, but literacy tests remained legal and in effect until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
The test was graded in such a way that whether or not one passed was up to the proctor. There were multiple ways of interpreting each question, and the proctor could choose which interpretation he or she personally favored when grading the test. The proctor could also fail the potential voter for spelling or grammatical errors.
To deprive people of their right to vote on the basis of race, is to deprive them of the most basic and important institution of a democratic society. A similar test was implemented in Dallas County, Alabama. In 1964, less than two percent of eligible black voters were registered to vote in Dallas County. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), both non-violent civil rights groups, rushed to make this county a flashpoint of the Civil Rights Movement. As the 2016 presidential election approaches, it may be easy for some to take their right to vote for granted.
Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed, many Americans dismiss voting rights as an issue of the past. Although it has been half a century since the termination of literacy tests, a Supreme Court decision in the past few years regarding the VRA calls our attention to voting rights once again.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down one of the most important sections of the VRA. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court deemed Section 4 of the VRA unconstitutional. For the past decades, Section 4 has required the approval of the federal government before any state can implement a voting law. These laws can be anything from banning same-day voter registration to eliminating early voting. The Supreme Court justifies its recent decision to strike down this section with the statement, “things have changed dramatically,” therefore making this section unnecessary in the 21st century. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg points out in her dissent, it only appears that, “things have changed dramatically,” because this section of the VRA was in place. For example, this section prevented Texas from implementing a voter ID law along with South Carolina. As a result of the Supreme Court decision, states that want to pass voter ID laws are no longer required preclearance by the federal government.
In response to the criticism of the ruling, the Supreme Court encourages Congress to draft new legislation. But, to pass similar legislation about voting rights is easier said than done. The decision to strike down Section 4 has been a hindrance to any progress the Civil Rights Movement has made in the past years; we once again are forced to question if voting rights are inalienable rights in this country.
Here’s What Happened When We Took the Literacy Test
Click here to view an original Louisiana Literacy Test: http://www.tn.gov/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/pdfs/Voter%20Test%20LA.pdf
To get a sense for how taking the literacy test must have felt, we decided to take it ourselves. Eleni and Adenike wrote about their first hand experiences.
Have you ever felt so pressed for time during a test that your eyes rove the paper manically? What happens when you take a test that is written in confusing, convoluted language? I’m the kind of person who, at the mere sight of a test, begins to panic. So as you can imagine, the Louisiana literacy test was my nightmare. “Be careful as one wrong answer denotes failure of the test,” the instructions state. Suddenly, the exam was more stressful and intimidating.
At first, the questions seemed strange, but understandable:
“Draw a line under the last word in this line.”
“Cross out the longest word in this line.”
Then they became stranger…
“In the space below, write the word ‘noise’ backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward.”
And my “favorite” one:
“Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in the same line, [original type smaller and first line ended at comma] but capitalize the fifth word that you write.”
Not only was the literacy test bizarre, but also nonsensical. It wasn’t until after my ten minutes had passed that I learned why the questions were so confusing. They were meant to be. To think that African American people were subjected to such ridicule only to be denied a fundamental American right is hard to believe. I felt extremely frustrated taking the test. However, I cannot imagine what it would be like to have the fate of my voting rights in the hands of someone who had the sole intention of watching me fail.
After taking the literacy test, I was considering changing its name to the “Impossible Test”! It’s astonishing that anyone would think this exam would be appropriate to simply allow someone the right to vote. When I took the test, I felt ashamed of being American. I felt guilty because African Americans went through centuries of slavery and continue to face institutionalized discrimination today. This literacy test is a clear example of the injustice they suffered.
The required literacy test at that time had absolutely no relevance to the presidential or any other elections. Someone chose arbitrarily if you were to pass or not and it was impossible to succeed. Furthermore, you might have miraculously passed the test, but that did not guarantee that you would be able to cast your ballot the day of elections. In a way, the literacy test was only play and games. After “passing” the literacy test you would be faced with a bunch of obstacles, including poll taxes and the threat of physical violence. If you could, you were still in the running of being able to vote; if you couldn’t, you were not allowed to vote. To sum it up, I’ve never felt so upset about taking a test. I felt trapped in an endless maze of words and hoped this test would never reoccur in the future.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Civil Rights Movement, be sure to check out our ongoing exhibition Freedom Journey 1965, featuring a series of photographs by New York reporter Stephen Somerstein, documenting the monumental Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March.