Question of the Month:

The Louisiana Literacy Test

February 2012

Q:  At your talk in Detroit you said that no one should be allowed to vote who does not know the name of the mayor in the town where they live. Are you really supporting a literacy test?

--Jacob Myers - Detroit, Michigan

A:  We-They thinking has always been a part of the culture in the United States. This is an unfortunate truth. Even today, at demonstrations protesting illegal immigration, one sees signs that read, "Illegals Have No Rights, They Are Criminals," and, "Go Trash Your Father's Crappy Country. Don't Trash My Father's Great Country!" Gay Rights Activists are confronted by these signs, "Homo-Sex Is A Threat to National Security," and "Gay Rights Are Not Civil Rights." At anti-President Obama rallies, one sees threatening signs, "Let's Take Our Country Back," and "We Came Unarmed This Time." Implicit in these signs – and others that are more coarse and divisive – is the assumption that there are "real" Americans who are entitled to the privileges of first-class citizenship (including voting), and "fake" Americans who are little more than cultural parasites. What you heard from my mouth was a satirical attempt to mock the "Us-Them" attitudes of some of my fellow Americans. So, I wondered out loud how many of the people with the "Get Out Of My Country" signs knew something as basic as the name of their mayor.

In the tumultuous years following the Unites States Civil War, the federal government was faced with two conflicting challenges: reincorporate the eleven states that had seceded from the Union and define and implement a strategy for ensuring the economic, political, and social rights of newly-freed black Americans. Radical Republicans, with support from the United States Army and the Freedman's Bureau, led the effort to pass and implement laws that ensured first-class citizenship for blacks. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868) affirmed that black Americans were citizens of the United States and entitled to due process and equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment (1870) stated that the right of citizens to vote "shall not be denied ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Conservative white southerners, and their northern allies in the Democratic Party, opposed all efforts to extend human rights to blacks. By 1877, the white southerners who wanted blacks "re-enslaved" had won; the new "slavery" was Jim Crow segregation.

The re-enslavement of blacks during the Jim Crow period hinged, in large part, on denying blacks the right to vote. "White primaries" permitted only white citizens to vote. Poll taxes were used to keep poor people from voting. Blacks who tried to vote were routinely intimidated. Sometimes the intimidation meant having your name placed in the town's newspaper. This was done so that the white people in town knew the identities of "trouble makers." If your employer saw your name you were fired. African Americans who tried to vote were sometimes beaten by police officers and incarcerated in local jails. In some cases, a black person was physically assaulted because one of their relatives tried to vote. And, when African Americans were brave enough to register to vote and lucky enough to get to vote they sometimes received "tissue paper ballots," made of thin paper and discarded before the votes were counted.

Literacy tests were also used to keep African Americans from voting. "Grandfather Clauses" exempted those persons with an ancestor who had voted before 1867, this kept poor and illiterate whites in the voting pool. These tests were not really designed to test civic knowledge or basic literacy. Some of the literacy tests were unnecessarily difficult; for example, a would-be-voter might be asked to recite the entire Declaration of Independence or the entire United States Constitution from memory. Such tasks were assigned at the whim of the registration official. Even if the applicant recited the document correctly they might be told that they had failed the test. Please remember that during the Jim Crow period blacks could not argue with whites; therefore, the black person taking the literacy test could not dispute the claims of the white person serving as the registration official. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively abolished the use of literacy tests. That Act also authorized the enrollment of voters by federal registrars in states where fewer than fifty percent of the eligible voters were registered or voted. All such states were in the South.

Many 21st century citizens have not seen a literacy test. Although the composition of these tests varied across and within voting jurisdictions, I believe our readers will benefit from reading an example of a literacy test. The following test was used in Louisiana in the late 1950s. As you answer the questions be mindful that the registration officials determined if your answers were right or wrong, and, if you were an African American, your answers would often be graded as incorrect, even if they were right. By the way, the Mayor of Big Rapids, Michigan, is Mark Warba.

February 2012 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.