Voter Registration in Mississippi Before the Voting Rights Act

Mississippi Voter Application & Literacy Test (circa 1955)

This example Mississippi voter application & literacy test from the mid-1950s is typical of the tests used before passage of the Voting Rights Act to deny Blacks (and other non-whites) the right to vote. While state law mandated that the test be given to everyone, whites were often excused from taking it if, in the opinion of the Registrar, they were "of good moral character."

Literacy tests and applications might vary a bit from one county to another, and in some cases they evolved and changed over time in response to court cases and Freedom Movement voter-registration efforts.

Note Questions #5 and #6 asking for name of employer and place of business. Afro-American voter applicants knew that this information would be passed on by the Registrars to the local chapter of the White Citizens Council who would then "encourage" employers to fire any Black who dared try to register to vote. For applicants who owned their own business or farm the Citizens Council would organize boycotts by white customers, suppliers, lenders and so on. These two questions were the mechanism through which economic terrorism was used to dissuade Blacks from registering. And, of course, their home address might be passed on to the KKK for more direct and violent forms of terrorism.

Note that Questions #18 and #19 allows the Registrars to choose which section of the Mississippi constitution an applicant has to write and interpret. They could assign a complex section filled with legalese and convoluted sentences, or they could assign a simple one or two-sentence section.

For example a white applicant might be asked to copy out and interpret:

ARTICLE 12 Section 240. All elections by the people shall be by ballot.

While a Black applicant might be asked to copy and interpret:

ARTICLE 7 Section 182. The power to tax corporations and their property shall never be surrendered or abridged by any contract or grant to which the state or any political subdivision thereof may be a party, except that the Legislature may grant exemption from taxation in the encouragement of manufactures and other new enterprises of public utility extending for a period of not exceeding ten (10) years on each such enterprise hereafter constructed, and may grant exemptions not exceeding ten (10) years on each addition thereto or expansion thereof, and may grant exemptions not exceeding ten (10) years on future additions to or expansions of existing manufactures and other enterprises of public utility. The time of each exemption shall commence from the date of completion of the new enterprise, and from the date of completion of each addition or expansion, for which an exemption is granted. When the Legislature grants such exemptions for a period of ten (10) years or less, it shall be done by general laws, which shall distinctly enumerate the classes of manufactures and other new enterprises of public utility, entitled to such exemptions, and shall prescribe the mode and manner in which the right to such exemptions shall be determined. SOURCES: Laws 1961, ch. 9, 1st Extraordinary Session, effective October 16, 1961. NOTE: The 1961 amendment to Section 182 was proposed by Laws 1961, ch. 9, 1st Extraordinary Session, and upon ratification by the electorate on October 3, 1961, was inserted by proclamation of the Secretary of State on October 16, 1961.

Then it is entirely up to the Registrar's sole judgement if the applicant's answer to Questions #19 and #20 are adequate.

What's missing from this form? Notice that there is no way for anyone to state their party affiliation. No one could register as a Democrat, Republican, or independent. That omission was not an oversight, it was a deliberate tactic on the part of the white establishment to prevent Blacks from participating in the Democratic primary election. In the era of the "solid South," only Democrats were ever elected. Since the Democratic candidates always won the general elections, the only election that really mattered was the party primary. Since there was no way anyone could register on the voter application form as a Democrat, it was up to the party officials in each county to decide who was a member of the party and therefore eligible to vote (or run for office) in the primary — and they were determined to keep the Democratic primary for "whites only." That meant that Blacks who somehow managed to become registered voters were still barred from voting or running for office in the most important local elections.

 — © Bruce Hartford

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