(Editorial cartoon criticizing the usage of literacy tests for African Americans as a qualification to vote. Cartoon shows Uncle Sam writing on wall, “Eddikashun qualifukashun. The Black man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with US Wites, signed Mr. Solid South.” Illustration in: Harper’s Weekly, v. 23 (1879 Jan. 18), p. 52)
Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, some states forced African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to take “literacy tests” to show they deserved to vote.
These tests were often four pages long and consisted of difficult questions that asked everyday people to interpret law or remember obscure facts about the workings of government. Here are some examples of tests:
Alabama Literacy Test, parts A, B, and C (B and C included as a pdf)
Alabama Application to Vote (required along with Literacy Test)
Louisiana Literacy Test and a personal recollection of Freedom Summer (1964) by a white activist who rode with black allies to desegregate the South as part of the Civil Rights movement
South Carolina’s “Eight Ballot Box” test of 1882: ballot boxes for eight elective offices were shuffled in random order so that ballots cast for one office but dropped in the wrong box were disqualified. Voters unable to read would not know which box to use to cast the corresponding vote.
See more lowlights in the shameful history of disenfranchisement of American voters in this timeline, which, at the same time, also tells the hopeful story of how our country has struggled to extend freedom and liberty to all.
Clearly, the point of these literacy tests was not to discover if the voter was an informed citizen, but to make an insurmountable barrier to voting that didn’t appear to deny non-whites the right to vote, but in effect did.
While these tests were also administered to whites, many more of them passed due to the review of test results by all-white Citizens’ Councils. These Councils acted to legitimize the results and ensure that the percentage of African American registered to vote out of all those eligible to vote remained low. Citizens’ Councils also adopted “grandfather clauses” that allowed all those white men able to vote before enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 to be “grandfathered” in under the old rules — i.e., exempt from literacy tests.
It wasn’t until the efforts of the Civil Rights movement — a decades-long struggle ever since Reconstruction (the immediate post-Civil War period onward) — to change laws and protect the rights of all voters that literacy tests were banned. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that the federal government had the means to enforce the right to vote with consistency and equality across all the states. In fact, today, many states are still bound by Voting Rights Act of 1965 rules governing redistricting. Should congressional and other electoral district lines be drawn in a way to disenfranchise, or dilute the votes of, a certain population, the U.S. Attorney General can investigate and make states redraw potentially discriminatory district lines.
That’s what’s happening in Texas today. Redrawn district maps have gone before judges several times.
The Republican-controlled Legislature drew the disputed Senate map in a way to make sure one incumbent Democrat, Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, was not re-elected. It also divided up minority voters into districts dominated by whites, something forbidden under the Voting Rights Act.
The compromise restores the district largely to its previous boundaries with a similar racial make-up.
Davis called the settlement “a tremendous victory” and said it would keep African Americans in southeast Tarrant County and Hispanics in the north from being split into Anglo-dominated senate districts. She said the Legislature drew their maps to prevent the election of someone who would represent minorities in the Senate.
The maps must balance population growth with racial and cultural diversity under the Voting Rights Act.
And lest you think that literacy tests are the relic of a dishonorable and overtly racist past, here’s something former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo said as of February, 2010: he suggested that literacy tests be brought back, and that Obama won because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote.”
Something to think about as you weigh your own vote.