Voting Rights
Are You "Qualified" to Vote?
Take a "Literacy Test" to Find Out

Alabama

Alabama Voter Application Form (c. 1965)

Alabama Voter Literacy Test (c. 1965)

How it Worked in Alabama (c. 1965)

Georgia

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:

Louisiana Voter Application & Literacy Test (c. 1963)

Instructions to Louisiana Registrars

CORE Voter Training Instructions (c. 1964)

Mississippi

Mississippi Voter Application & Literacy Test (c. mid-1950s)

South Carolina

South Carolina Voter Application (c. 1964)

Background

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.

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


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