Are You "Qualified" to Vote?
Take a "Literacy Test" to Find Out
Alabama Voter Application Form (c. 1965)
Alabama Voter Literacy Test (c. 1965)
How it Worked in Alabama (c. 1965)
Summary of Georgia's New Registration
Law (c. 1958)
It's Easy to Register!
(Georgia voter registration training, the "30 Questions")
SCLC Citizenship Clinic Manual:
Georgia Voter Registration (c. 1962)
Louisiana Voter Application & Literacy Test (c.
Instructions to Louisiana
CORE Voter Training
Instructions (c. 1964)
Mississippi Voter Application & Literacy
Test (c. mid-1950s)
South Carolina Voter
Application (c. 1964)
Today, most citizens register to vote without regard to race or color by
signing their name and address on something like a postcard. But it
was not always so.
Prior to passage of the federal
Voting Rights Act in 1965,
Southern states maintained elaborate voter registration procedures
deliberately designed to deny the vote to nonwhites.
This process was often referred to as a "literacy test," a term that had two
different meanings — one specific and one general. Some states
used an actual reading test. But the test results were rigged by biased
registrars who were the sole judges whether — in their
opinion — you were sufficiently "literate" to "pass." They
often did not require white applicants to take the test at all, or always
"passed" those who did. Black applicants were almost always required to take
the test, even those with college degrees, and they were almost always deemed
to have "failed."
The more general use of "literacy test" referred to the complex, interlocking
systems used to deny Afro-Americans (and in some regions, Latinos and Native
Americans) the right to vote so as to ensure that political power remained
exclusively white-only. In addition to tests and registration procedures,
these systems of racial discrimination and oppression included poll taxes,
police power & intimidation, economic retaliation, and violent white-
terrorism. It is in this general sense that the term "literacy test" is
applied to those southern states that did not us an actual reading test.
- Poll taxes. A "poll tax" was a tax you had to pay in order to vote.
At one time, state and local poll taxes were common, but by the mid-20th
Century they were mainly limited to the South as a means of preventing Blacks
and poor whites from voting. State poll taxes ranged from $1 to $5 per year,
and some towns and counties levy additional local poll taxes. In Mississippi,
for example, the state's poll tax was $2 per year (equal to $15 in 2012). That
might not sound like a lot of money, but for impoverished families feeding
their children on free federal "commodity" food it was a sum that forced them
to choose between voting and necessities of life. And many of those at the
very bottom of the economic ladder — sharecroppers, tenant
farmers, agricultural laborers, coal miners, timber workers, and so
on — existed entirely outside the cash economy. They had to
buy their necessities at over-priced plantation or company stores on credit
and their pay went directly to the store, not them.
- Police intimidation. The various state, county, and local police
forces all white of course routinely
intimidated and harassed Blacks who tried to register. They arrested would-be
voters on false charges and beat others for imagined transgressions; and often
this kind of retribution was directed not only at the man or woman who dared
try to register, but against family members as well, even the children.
- Economic retaliation. Throughout the deep South, white businesses,
employers, banks, and landlords were organized into White Citizens Councils
who inflicted economic retaliation against nonwhites who tried to vote.
Evictions. Firings. Boycotts. Foreclosures. Small-scale farmers needed a crop
loan each year in order to buy seed, fertilizer, fuel, and food until they
could sell their cotton or tobacco after picking. Banks denied those loans to
Blacks who tried to vote, forcing them off the land.
- White terrorism. And if economic pressure proved insufficient, the
Ku Klux Klan was ready with violence and mayhem. Cross-burnings. Night riders.
Beatings. Rapes. Church bombings. Arson of businesses and homes. Murder and
mob lynchings, drive-by shootings and sniper assassinations. Today these
people would be called "terrorists," but back then the white establishment saw
them as defenders of the "southern way of life" and upholders of
"our glorious southern heritage."
While in theory there were standard state-wide registration procedures,
in real-life the individual county Registrars and clerks did things
their own way. The exact procedure varied from county to county, and
within a county it varied from day to day according to the mood of the
Registrar. And, of course, it almost always varied according to the race
of the applicant.
— © Bruce Hartford