Voter Registration in Alabama Before the Voting Rights Act

Alabama Voter Application Form (c. 1965)

Alabama Voter Literacy Test (c. 1965)

In Alabama before the Voting Rights Act, a typical registration process for an Afro-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 might 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 about yourself and others would be passed on to the Citizens Council and KKK for appropriate action on their part.

Many counties used a "voucher system" which 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. 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 were 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.

After 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 ones.

Your application and test results were 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 you "unqualified."

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.

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 or falsely claiming to the news media that, "See, there's no racial discrimination in voter registration.

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 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 it.

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 cast votes 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.

 — © Bruce Hartford

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