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

See also Voting Rights in America — Two Centuries of Struggle

Introduction: the Literacy Test System

Alabama Literacy Tests & Voter Applications

Voter Registration in Alabama (c.1965)
Alabama Voter Application Form (c.1965)
Alabama Voter Literacy Test (c.1965)

Georgia Literacy Tests & Voter Applications

Voter Registration in Georgia (c.1963)
Summary of Georgia's New Registration Law (c.1958)
It's Easy to Register! (Georgia voter registration training, the "30 Questions")
Sumter Character Test (Sumter County GA voter registration training, 1963)
SCLC Citizenship Clinic Manual: Georgia Voter Registration (c.1962)

Louisiana Literacy Tests & Voter Applications

Louisiana Voter Application & Literacy Test (c.1963)
Instructions to Louisiana Registrars (c.1963 or 1964)
Negro Voting in Louisiana, Baton Rouge Committee on Registration Education. Undated (probably 1963 or 1964)
CORE Voter Training Instructions (c.1964)

Mississippi Literacy Tests & Voter Applications

Voter Registration in Mississippi
Mississippi Voter Application & Literacy Test (c.mid-1950s)
Literacy test questions & voting rights materials
Practice Mississippi voter registration form partially filled in by Percey Lee Brewer, February 27, 1964

South Carolina Voter Application

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. White officials claimed the test was fair, but in reality the results were rigged by biased registrars who were the sole judges of 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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