Question of the Month
Authentic Literacy Tests?
Q: Some have questioned the authenticity of this particular exam (Louisiana Literacy Test). There can be no doubt as to the historical fact that literacy tests were a key feature of Jim Crow efforts to disenfranchise black citizens. However, it remains unclear as to whether this particular document was actually used by Louisiana voting officials, or instead created later by civil rights advocates as a rhetorical example of the unfairness of literacy tests.
Can you provide any details as to exactly where/when it was used??
--Adam B.- Washington, D.C.
A: It is difficult to verify the authenticity of any specific literacy test. No common test was developed. Any local registration official had full authority to discriminate against any and all individual black people trying to register to vote. They did this in a variety of ways, including using written tests like the one identified as the Louisiana Literacy test.
The 1879 Louisiana Constitutional Convention added a literacy clause to the state constitution, along with a poll tax clause. Since there was no set standard for literacy tests, it was up to the individual districts and even polling stations to develop the test they would use.
Jeffrey Schwartz, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) tells his story on the "Civil Rights Movement Veterans" website. He refers to his experience with the Louisiana literacy test in 1964. One example he mentions is the "Write forwards backwards" question that is on the current digital copy of the Louisiana Literacy test.
"Then the test - and how it was graded and administered - got even more insidious. Check out question 21. It says: "Spell backwards, forwards". If a Black person spelled "backwards" but omitted the comma, he/she would be flunked. If a Black person spelled "backwards," he/she would be flunked. If a Black person asked why, he/she would be told either "you forgot the comma," or "you shouldn't have included the comma," or "you should have spelled 'backwards, forwards'". Any plausible response by a white person would be accepted, and so would any implausible response." (Schwartz, 2010)
Other examples of Schwartz' recollections of the literacy test can be found (Gardner, 2006, p. 8; Schwartz, 2003).
The fact that literacy tests in Louisiana were mandated by the state Constitution can be substantiated and verified. Pamphlets like the "Voter Qualification Laws in Louisiana - The Key to Victory in the Segregation Struggle", which were specifically created to "prevent the registration of ignorant, bloc voter," were distributed to polling stations. These and other documents can be used to verify that registrars acted intentionally to ensure that African American voters could not vote. (Watkins, 2013, p. 174)
Below are more examples of the how some voting locations prohibited and disenfranchised African American Voters.
In 1962 a New York Times article refers to a Civil Rights Commission report that "pointed to literacy tests as a major device used to keep Negroes from voting." For example, one question on the Louisiana Literacy test was to " 'interpret' "either the State or Federal Constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar -- with no objective standard of right or wrong." (Lewis, 1962)
A Louisiana registrar failed a Louisiana voter for not stating their age correctly in years, months, and days. ("Literacy Test", 1961).
The South Carolina Attorney General read a few examples of questions on literacy tests before the Supreme Court in 1966. These included questions like "Who was president of the Constitutional Convention? What kind of suit was he wearing?" ("U.S. Attorney")
A Florida newspaper reported that the Louisiana and Florida literacy tests were kept securely secret. ("Everyone wants", 1978)
A Virginia literacy test required test takers be given a blank sheet of paper and asked to "memorize the questions as well as the answers to 10 basic questions concerning their name, age, etc." ("U.S. files", 1961)
Another New York Times article describes the use of the pamphlet Voter Qualification Laws in Louisiana-the Key to Victory in the Segregation Struggle, distributed by the Association of Citizens' Council of Louisiana. It was intended to provide resources to registrars so they could "decide what questions to ask and then decide 'subjectively' the complaint emphasized, whether the answers are correct." (Lewis, 1961).
Use of the Voter Qualification Laws in Louisiana pamphlet is also discussed in the book "Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans" (Gill, 1997, p. 202).
In the article Voting Rights: A case study of Madison Parish, Louisiana testimony is presented about a parish that required negro voters to have "two electors who are on my books to identify you" in order to even take the literacy test (Voting Rights, 1971, Pg 732)
These examples, and many others that can be found, show the vast range of complexities involved with literacy tests. There is substantial evidence that almost anything could have been on a literacy test. Literacy tests differed from year to year, from state to state, from precinct to precinct, and even from voter to voter. Since there were no statutes specifying what should be on the test, and there were so many types of tests, there is really no way to verify the authenticity of any literacy test.
There is also an ongoing investigation into the authenticity of the Louisiana Literacy test by the Slate's Rebecca Onion.
To follow the progress, please click here.
Diversity & Inclusion / Jim Crow Museum
"Everyone wants to know: Could I pass the literacy test." Boca Raton News (1978, January 2), p. 5 Retrieved from
Gardner, Emily (2006, December 4). Paper for HNRS 300: Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement.
Gill, James (1997). Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Lewis, Anthony (1961, December 29). "U.S. sues to upset Louisiana's law on voting tests: Brief cites the requirement of
interpreting federal and state constitutions." New York Times, p. 1.
Subscription may be required.
Lewis, Anthony. "President backs voting rights bill: Literacy test curb would aid Puerto Ricans here and Negroes in South.
"New York Times (1962, January 26), p. 1.
Subscription may be required.
"Literacy Test". Baltimore Afro-American (1961, May 16), p. 3.
Schwartz, Jeff (2003). "Freedom Summer 1964: My experiences in Louisiana." A presentation given at Madeira School.
Schwartz, Jeff (2010). "CORE's Freedom Summer 1964 - My experiences in Louisiana." Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.
"U.S. Attorney slaps literacy test." The Spokesman-Review (1966, January 19), p. 2.
"U.S. files voter registration suit: Justice Department challenges vote requirement in Louisiana." Rome News-Tribune (1961, December 29), p. 1.
Voting Rights: A Case Study of Madison Parish, Louisiana The University of Chicago Law Review , Vol. 38, No. 4
(Summer, 1971), pp. 726-787
Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1598871
Subscription may be required.
Watkins, Glen P. (2013). The black American: A documentary history. Xlibris Corporation.