Take The Near Impossible Literacy Test Louisiana Used to Suppress the Black Vote (1964)


In William Faulkner’s 1938 novel The Unvanquished, the implacable Colonel Sartoris takes drastic action to stop the election of a black Republican candidate to office after the Civil War, destroying the ballots of black voters and shooting two Northern carpetbaggers. While such dramatic means of voter suppression occurred often enough in the Reconstruction South, tactics of electoral exclusion refined over time, such that by the mid-twentieth century the Jim Crow South relied largely on nearly impossible-to-pass literacy tests to impede free and fair elections.

These tests, writes Rebecca Onion at Slate, were “supposedly applicable to both white and black prospective voters who couldn’t prove a certain level of education” (typically up to the fifth grade). Yet they were “in actuality disproportionately administered to black voters.” Additionally, many of the tests were rigged so that registrars could give potential voters an easy or a difficult version, and could score them differently as well. For example, the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement describes a test administered in Alabama that is so entirely subjective it measures the registrar’s shrewdness and cunning more than anything else.


The test here from Louisiana consists of questions so ambiguous that no one, whatever their level of education, can divine a “right” or “wrong” answer to most of them. And yet, as the instructions state, “one wrong answer denotes failure of the test,” an impossible standard for even a legitimate exam. Even worse, voters had only ten minutes to complete the three-page, 30-question document. The Louisiana test dates from 1964, the year before passage of the Voting Rights Act, which effectively put an end to these blatantly discriminatory practices. (Though last year’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby vs. Holder means that such tests, or even more slippery means, could ostensibly return in those parts of the country that have made little progress since the sixties). Learn more of the history of Jim Crow voter suppression at Rebecca Onion’s original post here and an update here.


via Slate’s Vault blog

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Watch The March, the Masterful, Digitally Restored Documentary on The Great March on Washington

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Stephen says:

    It would be fun to administer this test to incoming Harvard undergrads or new Google employees to see how they would do.

  • Hanoch says:

    For what it is worth, the statement that “little progress” had been made “since the sixties” with regard to the black vote is incorrect. In fact, black voter turnout is now higher than white voter turnout as a percentage of their respective populations.

  • John Mize says:

    Not hard to pass. Impossible to pass. Jesus Christ couldn’t draw a line around anything. A line is straight by definition. Obviously the Louisiana test writer failed geometry.

  • Jon says:

    Very simple test. Simply read the question and follow the instructions. Anyone except an idiot can pass this. I’m sure black voters had no problem with it. The question toughest to answer is are you smarter than a black voter in Louisiana?

  • CLORIS ellis says:

    I was 16 in 1964. I did not know about this test! I took the test, tricky! Have we come a long way? In some ways yes but in too many ways NO

  • Faye says:

    This isn’t about it even being a “very simple test.” The point was for every question to be worded in a manner so that it could be graded subjectively. Yes, you can follow the instructions to the letter, but you’d still get the incorrect answer for most of them depending on how the question and answer are interpreted. Not easy or hard but downright sneaky, and measures such as these ensured that those in charge controlled who could and could not vote.

  • Linda Larson says:

    Where can I find the actual answers to these questions? How many questions are there? Is there any evidence that the tests were graded and graded properly?

  • Jack says:

    I kind of wish all candidates and all voters took a test like this…

  • kaitlin says:

    this was a fun test to take in just ten minites. my history teacher gave it to us today. i loved it.

  • Denissa says:

    Actually the test is impossible. Question number 25 is a question with many different answers. And any answer that was given the person grading the test could simply say “no I was looking for this answer not this one”. That is why no black citizens in Louisiana at that time ever got to vote. Even the man himself that invited it could not pass that test.

  • Nightowl223 says:

    According to http://www.crmvet.org/info/la-test.htm, the above was referred to as a “”brain-twister” type Louisiana literacy test.” They also said “We removed it from this website because it was quite atypical and was probably little used.” The following is a PDF of some of the actual tests given: http://www.crmvet.org/info/la-littest2.pdf

  • Isha says:

    A line is just a set of dots of which it’s constituted. But you almost got it right – a straight line is indeed straight by definition.

  • sam says:

    Donald Trump won’t pass this test. lol

  • Michelle says:

    These aren’t subjective to the point of being impossible. These are all easy, and they follow standard test formats that any child who’s taken any schooling would be familiar with. It tests basic reading comprehension and the reader’s ability to wait until he’s read the entire sentence to actually understand what’s being asked before making a mark on the paper.

    If I’d been given this test as an eight year old in school, I’d be insulted that my teachers thought so low of my intelligence.

  • aryanna says:

    Funny, because I think this test was designed so that one one could pass! I am sure you could not pass it. I think the main point is why should the black voters have to earn the right to vote with a stupid test. Maybe you’re stupid for not understanding that!

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