What Is a Literacy Test?

A literacy test measures a person’s aptitude in reading and writing. Beginning in the 19th century, literacy assessments were used in the voter registration process in southern states of the U.S. to disenfranchise African American voters. In 1917, with the ratification of the Immigration Act, literacy assessments were also in the U.S. immigration process, and they are still employed today. Traditionally, literacy tests have legitimized racial and ethnic marginalization in the U.S.

History of Reconstruction and Jim Crow Era

With the Jim Crow laws, literacy tests were introduced into the South’s voting process. Southern ratified these laws and statutes in the late 1870s to disenfranchise after Reconstruction. They were created to keep White, and Black people segregated, disenfranchise Black voters, and support Black people subjugated, neutralizing the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Despite ratifying the 14th Amendment in 1868, giving citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” Southern and border states continued to identify ways to stop racial minorities from voting. They employed electoral fraud and violence to scare African American voters and developed Jim Crow laws to engender racial segregation.

Many of the improvements made during Reconstruction were short-lived, with the Supreme Court continuing to use racial discrimination and segregation in its judgments, thus giving southern states the right to impose literacy tests and different voting restrictions on prospective, discriminating against Black voters.

Literacy Tests and Voting Rights

Some states, such as Connecticut, employed literacy tests in the mid-1800s to stop Irish immigrants from voting; however, Southern states didn’t employ literacy tests until after Reconstruction in 1890. Approved by the federal government, these assessments were used well into the 1960s. They were given to test the voter’s literacy, but they were designed to discriminate against Black Americans and, at times, poor White voters. Although 40% to 60% of Black people were illiterate during this period, compared to 8% to 18% of Caucasian people, these assessments had a significant differential racial impact.

Southern states also imposed other standards, which the test administrator arbitrarily set. Favored were those with property or grandfathers who could vote, people with “good moral character,” and those who paid taxes. Because of these rigorous standards, of the 130,334 registered African American voters in the state of Louisiana in 1896, just 1% could pass the state’s new rules eight years later. Even in areas where the African American population was substantially more significant, these standards kept the White people in the majority.

The administration of literacy tests was discriminatory. If the white administrator wanted a person to pass the test, they could ask an easy question—for instance, “Who is the president of the United States?” While the same official could ask a higher standard of an African American person, even requiring that they answer all questions correctly. It was up to the administrator whether the potential voter-passed or failed, and even if a Black man were well-educated, he would die because the test was developed with failure as the objective. Even if a potential Black voter could answer answers to the questions, the administrator giving the test could still fail them.

Literacy tests were not made unconstitutional in the South until 95 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ratified the 15th Amendment. Five years later, in 1970, Congress made literacy tests and discriminatory voting practices unconstitutional nationwide, and the number of registered African American voters increased.

Actual Literacy Tests

In 2014 a group of Harvard University learners was asked to take the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test to increase awareness about voting discrimination. The test was comparable to those given in states since Reconstruction to prospective voters who could not prove they had a fifth-grade education. To be able to vote, an individual had to answer all 30 questions in 10 minutes correctly. All of the learners failed under those conditions because the assessment was meant to be failed. The questions have nothing to do with the United States Constitution and are nonsensical.


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