Louisiana Voter Literacy Test ~ circa 1963
Louisiana Voter Literacy Test ~ circa 1964

The circa 1963 Louisiana literacy test is typical of the tests used throughout the South before passage of the Voting Rights Act to deny Blacks — and other non-whites — the right to vote. (The circa 1964 test is quite atypical and unique to Louisiana in that year.) While state law mandated that the test be given to everyone who could not verify that they had at least a 5th-grade education, in real life almost all Blacks were forced to to take it even if they had a college degree while whites were often excused from taking it no matter how little education they had.

Determination of who "passed" and who "failed" was entirely up to the whim of the Registrar of Voters — all of whom were white. In actuality, whites almost always "passed" no matter how many questions they missed, and Blacks almost always "failed" in the selective judgement of the Registrar. On the 1963 test, for example, the Registrar was free to choose which portion of the Constitution to dictate — simple or complex — and was then the sole judge of the applicants written response (and where required their oral interpretation). The "citizenship test" component then asked questions about government and law, many of them obscure, and few people — Black or white — could correctly answer them all without advance study. If you were Black and missed one question you "failed," if you were white and couldn't even read the questions, you "passed."

As you can see, on the 1964, test the questions were deliberately designed to be tricky and confusing. For example, Question 20 reads: "Spell backwards, forwards." Answers by whites would be judged correct no matter what they wrote. But Blacks who wrote both words but forgot to include the comma would be failed, or if they included the comma they would be failed for that, or if they just wrote "backwards" they would be failed for not including the word "forwards." Or if they wrote "backwards" instead of sdrawkcab they'd be failed for that and the same for vice-versa. See The Louisiana Literacy Test and How It Worked to Deny Black Voting Rights for more information on how this test was used.


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