Could You Pass This Voting Literacy Test Once Designed To Disenfranchise Blacks?

Published September 22, 2017
Updated August 5, 2020
Published September 22, 2017
Updated August 5, 2020

While this voting literacy test sought to make sure voters were educated enough to vote, it proved to be prejudicial against black voters.

Voting Literacy Test Line

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesBlack voters line up to register outside the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Alabama

Even after the Civil Rights Movement afforded them the right to vote, black voters still faced barriers. Southern states especially employed the use of a voting literacy test to dissuade black people from registering.

The states claimed that the voting literacy test was applicable to both white and black voters that could not provide proof of anything over a fifth-grade education. However, it became obvious that it was disproportionately administered to black voters.

In addition to being given to an inordinate number of black voters, the voting literacy test itself was near impossible. The questions were intentionally written to make them confusing, and one wrong answer would result in an automatic failure. In addition, a white registrar was the ultimate decision maker when it came to the test, and would more often than not mark answers wrong for no reason.

The literacy test were also all around 30 questions and had to be taken in 10 minutes. Even to college-educated people today the questions remain baffling.

The tests varied by state, sometimes relating to citizenship and laws, and some regarding literacy and logic.

For example, one of the tests, from Alabama, focused heavily on civic procedure, with questions like “Name the attorney general of the United States” and “Can you be imprisoned, under Alabama law, for a debt?”

In Georgia, they were more state-specific, with questions such as “If the Governor of Georgia dies, who succeeds him and if both the Governor and the person who succeeds him die, who exercises the executive power?” and “Who is the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture?”

However, it was Louisiana, by far, that had the most impossible test. There were no questions about the states inner workings, nor the countries, but instead, 30 questions that were obviously designed to confuse the taker. Here’s the test, courtesy of the Civil Rights Movement website.

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They start off easy enough. “Draw a line under the last word in this line,” the second question states. However, the sixth question seems to have no obvious answer. “In the space below,” it prompts, “draw three circles, one inside the other.”

Another question literacy test: “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.”

Again, even to someone with a college education, the prompt would be confusing. Keep in mind that the test is timed and you may not have any incorrect answers.

Thankfully, in 1964, the literacy tests were suspended by the Voting Rights Act.

After this look at the history of the voting literacy test, have a look some of the most powerful Civil Rights photos. Then, read about Ida B. Wells, a pioneering civil rights hero.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.