Literacy tests were intended to make sure voters were educated enough to vote, but proved to be highly prejudicial against black voters.
Literacy Test

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 literacy test to dissuade black voters from registering.

The states claimed that the literacy tests were 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 tests themselves were 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.


Enjoyed this? Next, check out these 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 writing fellow at All That Is Interesting.
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