Are You "Qualified" to Vote?
Take a "Literacy Test" to Find Out
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 (and some Western) states maintained elaborate voter
registration procedures whose primary purpose was to deny the vote to
This process was often referred to as a "literacy test." A term that had
two different meanings — one specific and one general.
The specific term referred to the actual, so-called, "literacy test"
which was not really a reading test because the results were rigged by
biased registrars who judged whether — in their
opinion — you were sufficiently "literate" to "pass."
The more general use of "literacy test" referred to an entire complex
system devoted to denying African-Americans (and in some regions,
Latinos and Native Americans) the right to vote. The actual "literacy
test" and the registration procedures were just parts of this larger
interlocking system of racial discrimination and oppression designed to
ensure that political power remained exclusively white-only. Other
significant components of the general "literacy test" system included
police power, economic retaliation, and violent terrorism.
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.
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.
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.
How it Worked in Alabama
In Alabama, for example, a typical registration process for an
African-American citizen went something like this:
In the rural counties where most folk lived, you had to go down to the
courthouse to register. The voting registration office was only open
every other Monday for a couple of hours, usually in the morning or
afternoon. You had to take off work with or without your
employer's permission to register. And if a white
employer gave such permission, or failed to fire a Black who tried to
vote, he could be driven out of business by economic retaliation from
the Citizens Council.
On the occasional registration day, the county Sheriff and his deputies
made it their business to hang around the courthouse to discourage
"undesirables" from trying to register. This meant that Black women and
men had to run a gauntlet of intimidation, insults, threats, and
sometimes arrest on phony charges, just to get to the Registration
Office. Once in the Registrars Office they faced hatred, harassment, and
humiliation from clerks and officials.
The Alabama Application Form and oaths you had
to take were four pages long. It was designed to intimidate and
threaten. You had to swear that your answers to every single question
were true under penalty of perjury. And you knew that the information
you entered on the form would be passed on to the Citizens Council and
Many counties used what they called the "voucher system." This meant
that you had to have someone who was already a registered
voter "vouch" for you under oath and penalty of
perjury that you met the qualification to vote. In some
counties this "supporting witness" had to accompany you to the
registrars office, in others they were interviewed later. Some counties
limited to two or three the number of new applicants a registered voter
could vouch for in a given year. Since no white voter would dare vouch
for a Black applicant, in counties where only a handful of Blacks
already registered only a few more could be added to the rolls each year
even if they passed the "test." And in counties were no Blacks were
registered, none ever could be registered because they had no one to
vouch for them.
Of course, any of these rules or requirements, including the so-called
"literacy test" itself, could be ignored or altered at any time by whim
of the Registrar. So most whites were not subject to this onerous
process, and on occasion a Registrar might allow one or two Blacks to
register as a way of feigning compliance with some Federal court order
diverting the attention of reporters.
In addition to completing the application and swearing the oaths, you
had to pass the actual "Literacy Test" itself.
Because the Freedom Movement was running
"Citizenship Schools" to help
people learn how to fill out the forms and pass the test, Alabama
changed the test 4 times in less than two years (1964-1965). At the time
of the Selma Voting Rights
campaign there were many different tests in use across the state. In
theory, each applicant was supposed to be given one at random from a big
loose-leaf binder. In real life, some individual tests were easier than
others and the registrar made sure that Black applicants got the hardest
A typical Alabama "test" consisted of three-parts:
- In "Part A" the applicant was given a selection of the Constitution
to read aloud. The registrar could assign a long complex section filled
with legalese and convoluted sentences, or he could select a simple one
or two sentence section (see Alabama
Literacy Test for examples). The Registrar marked each word he
thought you mispronounced. In some counties, you had to orally interpret
the section to the registrar's satisfaction. You then had to either copy
out by hand a section of the Constitution, or write it down from
dictation as the registrar spoke (mumbled) it. White applicants usually
were allowed to copy, Black applicants usually had to take dictation.
The Registrar then judged whether you "literate" or "illiterate." His
judgement was final and could not be appealed.
- In Parts "B" and "C," you had to answer
two different sets of four written questions each. Part "B" was 4
questions based on the excerpt you had written down. Part "C" consisted
of 4 "general knowledge" questions about state and national government.
Your application was then reviewed by the three-member Board of
Registrars often in secret at a later date. They voted
on whether or not you passed. It was entirely up to the judgment of the
Board whether you passed or failed. If you were white and missed every
single question they could still pass you if in their
sole judgment you were "qualified." If you were Black
and got every one correct, they could still flunk you if they considered
Your name was published in the local newspaper listing of those who had
applied to register. That was to make sure that all of your employers,
landlords, mortgage-holders, bank loan officers, business-suppliers, and
so on, were kept informed of this important event. And, of course, all
of the information on your application was quietly passed under the
table to the White Citizens Council and KKK for appropriate action.
Their job was to encourage you to withdraw your
application or withdraw yourself out of the
county by whatever means they deemed necessary.
Today, people ask how anyone — white or
Black — ever got through this mess to actually register?
A good question. As a matter of public record, white registration in
Alabama was very high, while Black registration was minuscule. In some
of the counties where African-Americans were the majority of the
population, white registration was close to, or over, 100% (in some
cases as high as 115%), while Black registration was zero or close to
White registration could be over 100% because when white voters died or
moved out of the area their names were kept on the voting list. Oddly
enough, many of them (even the dead ones), somehow managed to actually
vote (usually for the incumbent) every election day. This was commonly
referred to as the "tombstone vote" and to the local politicians it was
a miracle of southern democracy.