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

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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.

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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.

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via Slate's Vault blog

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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!

  • Michael says:

    There are a bunch of problems with this test, all specifically designed to make success nearly impossible. Like this:

    – Thirty questions in ten minutes is 20 seconds per question. It took me longer than that to read and interpret all thirty, without trying to answer them, and I have a degree in physics.
    – Ordinarily, literacy refers to the basic ability to read and write at an essential level; it doesn’t normally refer to compass-reading, geometry, arithmetic comprehension (i.e., numeracy), etc.
    – Many questions are designed to confuse, others to allow more than one answer. The secret is that any answer will be wrong.

    Example interpretations, based on my having grown up in the racist southern US:

    1 & 4. Technically, you can’t draw a line around things because lines are straight.

    2 & 3. The longest word in the line can be “longest” because it has the most letters, or “word” because it is the only “word” in the line. Both answers will be wrong. Similar for the “last word.”

    5. Likely answerable.

    6. Refers to three circles but only describes the positions of two. There have to be three circles, but any third circle is wrong.

    7. What should a cross look like? Also, the space where you draw the cross is also the answer space for the previous question. Any answer will be wrong, and will invalidate #6.

    8. “A” comes earliest in the alphabet. Drawing a line at all will be wrong. So will not drawing a line.

    9. “Z” comes last in the alphabet, but doesn’t occur twice in the list. Any answer is wrong.

    10. No word in the sentence begins with a capital L. Any writing will be wrong. Also, “below” contains the word “low,” which fulfills the “first word” request. Unless you choose it. All answers will be wrong.

    11. “Necessary” is not a number; any crossing out is therefore wrong. Also, zero can be a number or a placeholder; acting on either is wrong. Also, the instructions require the test taker to cross out “the number” – singular – but multiple numbers must be crossed out to answer correctly.

    12. Again, lines are straight. Also, it is not possible to draw a line that is both below and connected to something. Also, nobody told you to touch circle three. Any answer is wrong.

    15. Dotting the “i” in noise will put two dots over letters, leaving the dot out is a misspelling. Also, writing “noise” backwards can mean reversing the order of the letters or writing the word in mirror image, so that the letters are also drawn backwards. Any answer is wrong.

    16. “Its” can refer to either the circle or the triangle. And what is the measure of blackened?

    17 & 18. These might actually be answerable.

    19. Does the dot go inside the circle or inside the triangle? Both are wrong.

    20. Are we to write the word “backwards” in its normal “forward” fashion, or are we to write “forwards” with the letters in reverse order? Both are wrong

    21. Are we to write “vote” so that turning the paper upside down makes it normally readable, or are we to invert each letter while preserving their order? Both answers are wrong.

    22. Again, what should a cross look like? Also, the space where you draw the cross is also the answer space for the previous question. Any answer will be wrong, and will invalidate #21.

    23. Might be answerable, or “middle” might lose to a ruler. Or the shape might not be square enough.

    24. There are very few geometrically symmetrical words, in part because there are few symmetrical letters. “bid” or “bod” or “dib” might work, unless inversion plays a role.

    25. The duplicated “the” at the line break is commonly lost to syntactical/perceptive filtering. This is a popular gag in intro to psychology classes. Further, the “line provided” is connected to the triangle, which itself is constructed of lines. Any answer will be wrong.

    26. Probably answerable, but clearly phrased to confuse.

    27. Some possible answers:
    a. Transcribe everything after the word “Write.”
    b. “it”, which I wrote right, e.g., correctly
    c. “right from the left to the right”
    d. “right”
    Any answer will be wrong.

    28. Is the “curved horizontal line” a single continuous arc? An undulating sine curve? Geometrically speaking, can a line be a curve? Will the equality of the segments of the vertical line be measured for accuracy? It doesn’t matter, any answer will be wrong.

    29. Does writing every other word begin with the first or the second? Do we put the “every others” and the “every thirds” in their original locations, or do we perform the tasks and placements sequentially? Note, too, that this is the first time “write” and “print” are explicitly differentiated, e.g., cursive vs. block printing; how does this reflect on all previous instructions? Is reading and writing in cursive crucial to literacy and voting? How legible must cursive writing be to pass? It doesn’t matter; any interpretation will be wrong.

    30. The instruction is incomplete and cannot be performed as described. Also, what constitutes interlocking? Any answer will be wrong.

    Remember, any single wrong answer – equal to a 96.7% success rate – is a failure. We’ve likely gotten nearly every answer “wrong” in the proctor’s flexible interpretation. We will not be allowed to vote.

    I’ll add that any complaint from the test taker will be answered with either an excessively simplistic “see how obviously stupid you are” demonstration to help you internalize your inadequacy (on a good day) or the threat of arrest or grievous harm (on a bad day).

    The goal was never too test literacy, it was to prevent voting, full stop.

  • Paul says:

    Michael’s response on November 8th is truthful, thoughtful, and thorough. Thank you.

  • Mark2000 says:

    What would be the point. Some of them are questions with no good answer because their written in an obtuse fashion. The very first question is confusing already. With its lack of quotes or italics combined with a strange word order, the intent of “Spell backwards, forwards.” is impossible to decipher . Do I just spell out “backwards”? Do I spell “forwards” backwards? And the sentence “Draw five triangles that one common inter-locking part” makes it clear the test writer themselves couldn’t pass a literacy test.

  • JimBO says:

    This is simple. It’s a cultural test, stop reading it literally.
    Source: Southerner

  • Bleh says:

    You’re racist

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  • What does it matter? says:

    I have to partially disagree with Michael. Ten minutes is enough time to complete this test. I’m 16 and still in high school, and I completed it in 7. Moreover, it DOES test reading comprehension. Although interpretations may differ, there are also many different answers for some. For example, it IS possible to draw a line AROUND something, search up Merriam-Webster’s definition of a circle. Also, the position of three circles CAN be described as one inside the other. What is called into question here is not how feasible it is to complete the test, but how ridiculous the test is in determining someone’s right to vote, and how biased it proved to be.

  • Racheal says:

    Ok so then please explain how you draw a line around a word. Since you find it simple. And don’t make up words or directions.a line is straight no curves.so no you can’t draw a line around anything…These test were rigged so you can’t pass. They would have picked on anything. Grandfather clause almost always made sure all blacks couldn’t vote as well. I can’t stand people like you.

  • name not required says:

    @What does it matter?
    I call bull. Either you were just looking at the first page (the whole test is THIRTY questions) or you’re just straight up lying. 7 m / 30 questions * 60 s/m = an average of 14 seconds spent on each question. Yeah not buying it

  • Kyle says:

    You’re 16, and you just put 99% of people on Facebook and Youtube to shame with your impeccable spelling and grammar. I used to underestimate just how asinine the average American could be, but these days I apparently underestimate how intelligent a teenager can be. I’m pleased to be proven wrong with the latter. Perhaps if the majority of voters in 2016 shared a similar level of intellect, we wouldn’t be in such turmoil in this country right now.

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