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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Robert Penn War­ren Archive Brings Ear­ly Civ­il Rights to Life

Read Mar­tin Luther King and The Mont­gomery Sto­ry: The Influ­en­tial 1957 Civ­il Rights Com­ic Book

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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Comments (68)
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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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • wOWZERZ111 says:

    oohh boiUYYYY GH!11!!1

  • SPAM BOT says:

    jhkhgft­dreftyguh­bj SPAMMM

  • 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.

  • Bobby says:

    Even though this was post­ed 2 years ago, this com­ment has to be a joke right? LOL lets see you take the test and post your answers online, I guar­an­tee you, you will fail since you can’t miss ONE ques­tion idiot.

  • David L. Howard says:

    Bald heads, beards, ear­rings, tell-tale ‘can­dy ass’ funk, Pad­docks, Suther­lands… these also are poll tax­es and lit­er­a­cy tests…‘We’ are SO knowl­edge­able, and ‘we’ are SO blessed or ‘accepted…”We,’ SO knowl­edge­able and SO blessed, refuse to acknowl­edge as crim­i­nal nui­sance obvi­ous­ly low-fly­ing, loud air­craft that tar­get one African Amer­i­can man every day dur­ing decades…’ We,’ SO blessed, and SO knowl­edge­able, refuse to fight an inva­sion of pri­va­cy con­spir­a­cy of unprece­dent­ed( unpres­i­dent­ed?) egre­gious­ness, which con­spir­a­cy tar­gets that same ‘scape­goat’ African Amer­i­can man.…..Perhaps ‘we’ will con­tin­ue to sub­mit to these ‘game show’ or lot­tery poll tax­es and lit­er­a­cy tests while we spend ‘our’ tax cuts…(that Christ­mas gift should have been from a bull, not a horse…)…“The great­est scourge that an angry heav­en ever unleashed upon a sin­ning (and) an ungrate­ful peo­ple, (is) an igno­rant, cor­rupt, (and) a depen­dant judi­cia­ry…” John Mar­shall.

  • ethan hise says:

    how to solve the thing

  • Alexia says:

    If you can draw a “line” around any­thing as dic­tat­ed in ques­tions 1 and 4, then you are God. But alas, you are not God and you can­not pass this impos­si­ble test test. By def­i­n­i­tion, a line is straight and can­not be drawn around any­thing, it would make the line a cir­cle.

  • Anonymous says:

    Well, back then, there was no one log­i­cal answer. All the testers would just fail a black per­son on pur­pose; since there are two answers for some of the ques­tions. Even now, there are mul­ti­ple answers to some ques­tions.

  • Alax says:

    On the con­trary, this is just like those memes with pic­tures of fruit adding up to var­i­ous num­bers. The ambi­gu­i­ty gave the scor­er the chance to say that a cir­cle was cor­rect for a white per­son but incor­rect for a black. Minor errors were ignored for whites but not for blacks, “Oh, we’re so sor­ry, but you failed”.

  • Justin Harper says:

    Though the sub­ject of whether it’s a good idea to require peo­ple to take a test before vot­ing is an inter­est­ing, but con­tro­ver­sial opin­ion. that was­n’t the inten­tion of this test. This test was made to pre­vent African Amer­i­cans from vot­ing. Most white peo­ple were exempt from tak­ing this because of what was called, “The Grand­fa­ther Clause.” The Grand­fa­ther Clause states that if you can prove your grand­fa­ther vot­ed before 1867. Slav­ery was abol­ished in the Unit­ed States in the year 1856. Because enslaved peo­ple could­n’t vote, this means that no African Amer­i­cans were able to clar­i­fy this, thus mak­ing them take the test.

  • Robert says:

    But that would ruin all the fun.

  • tom soyer says:


  • Bob says:

    You have a physics degree Michael. It’s “to”, not “too.”

  • Nima says:

    There may have been some spec­u­la­tion on ques­tions in this test espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing how vot­ing is such an impor­tant issue which is laugh­able, but those ques­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions you point­ed out are com­plete­ly flawed or exag­ger­at­ed.

  • Nima says:

    Those inter­pre­ta­tions are akin to what a psy­chol­o­gist would use to deter­mine your eli­gi­bil­i­ty to vote lol.

    But all jokes aside, there were some tricky ques­tions, more time should like­ly have been giv­en, the mag­ni­tude and impact of vot­ing, as well as 1 wrong answer deter­min­ing eli­gi­bil­i­ty, is not right.

  • Lyn says:

    “The goal was nev­er too test lit­er­a­cy”??

  • emmie says:

    nope just human­i­ty

  • Liv says:

    Maybe when they say draw a line around they mean to draw a square?

  • Bob The Sea Pickle says:

    Just like you!

  • Faye says:

    What do you mean? We have com­plete racial equal­i­ty now.

  • Hum says:

    Well actu­al­ly a line is just defined as a nar­row mark or band.

  • Deanna says:

    Black vot­ers weren’t able to get a good edu­ca­tion, and ontop of that it was timed.

  • lime says:

    michelle you dont under­atand how blacks had no pre­vi­ous edu­ca­tion

  • Lucas says:

    The test was­n’t giv­en to every­one, but only those whom those run­ning the elec­tion believed weren’t suf­fi­cient­ly lit­er­ate.

    Thus the test was only giv­en to folks who opposed those in pow­er.

    Thus wealthy whites or those who sup­port­ed seg­re­ga­tion did­n’t have to take them in the first place.

  • Lucas says:

    here is web­ster’s def­i­n­i­tion of a cir­cle:

    ‘: RING, HALO
    b : a closed plane (see PLANE entry 6 sense 2b) curve every point of which is equidis­tant (see EQUIDISTANT sense 1) from a fixed point with­in the curve
    c : the plane sur­face bound­ed by such a curve
    2 archa­ic : the orbit of a celes­tial body
    3 : some­thing in the form of a cir­cle or sec­tion of a cir­cle: such as
    a : DIADEM
    b : an instru­ment of astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tion the grad­u­at­ed (see GRADUATED sense 2a) limb of which con­sists of an entire cir­cle
    c : a bal­cony or tier of seats in a the­ater
    d : a cir­cle formed on the sur­face of a sphere by the inter­sec­tion of a plane that pass­es through it
    cir­cle of lat­i­tude
    e : ROTARY sense 2
    Traf­fic slowed down around the cir­cle.
    4 : an area of action or influ­ence : REALM
    with­in the cir­cle of prob­a­bil­i­ty
    5a : CYCLE, ROUND
    the wheel has come full cir­cle
    b : fal­la­cious rea­son­ing in which some­thing to be demon­strat­ed is covert­ly assumed
    6 : a group of per­sons shar­ing a com­mon inter­est or revolv­ing about a com­mon cen­ter
    the sewing cir­cle of her church
    fam­i­ly cir­cle
    the gos­sip of court cir­cles
    polit­i­cal, social, and lit­er­ary cir­cles
    7 : a ter­ri­to­r­i­al or admin­is­tra­tive divi­sion or dis­trict
    The province is divid­ed into nine cir­cles.
    8 : a curv­ing side street
    lived on Kim­ber­ly Cir­cle
    9 : a cir­cu­lar course or path
    The chil­dren ran in cir­cles around the tree.
    The con­ver­sa­tion kept going in cir­cles, and noth­ing got accom­plished.’

    Thus, you are incor­rect.

    Sor­ry to have to weigh in against you.

    Feel free to email me your results, and I will explain how almost every one of your answers is wrong — and remem­ber, if you miss EVEN ONE ques­tion, you fail the test and can­not vote.


  • Alan Dodson says:

    Obvi­ous­ly the peo­ple com­plain­ing about the dif­fi­cul­ty (of this sim­ple test) are just too stu­pid to pass it them­selves. I saw no nota­tions about hav­ing to get every answer cor­rect. Peo­ple that are vot­ing for any­thing should be smart enough to com­pre­hend the eng­lish lan­guage and a sim­ple lit­er­a­cy test shows that you can under­stand. For the ones argu­ing about lines, a line is a con­tin­u­ous flu­id mark, a straight line, by it’s name is straight. A cir­cle is a line that con­nects to itself. Sor­ry peo­ple, you are not smart enough to vote either.

  • MAGA says:

    I’m bet­ting that most blacks can­not pass it.

  • MAGA says:

    Exact­ly right. But they say dif­fer­ent.

  • MAGA says:

    And don’t desire one now.

  • Ambrose houser says:

    this test is hard and if you think you passed it you prob­a­bly did­n’t

  • Drrr says:

    You found the test dif­fi­cult I see. It is a real­ly easy test. We have gone back­wards in this coun­try. The peo­ple who find it con­fus­ing are the ones of low­er intel­lect. They in turn make up for this by find­ing a cru­sade to march on that makes them either feel smart or rel­e­vant.

  • big chungus says:

    ur big gay

  • (.) _ (.) says:

    How dare you (.) _ (.)

  • (.) _ (.) says:

    Waka waka ay ay

    Trump might not pass this test. lol

    - vin­ny (.) _ (.)

  • ree says:

    this is stu­pid and I feel sor­ry

  • GurlYouDumb says:

    This test has noth­ing to do with intel­li­gence or lit­er­a­cy. The strange phras­ing and ambi­gu­i­ty of the ques­tions, cou­pled with the word lim­it, makes it impos­si­ble to pass if the proctor/grader doesn’t want you to. They can sim­ply say that they were look­ing for a dif­fer­ent answer than the one you pro­vid­ed, even if your answer was equal­ly valid.

    One wrong answer, and there goes your right to vote. By the way, lit­er­al­ly at the begin­ning of the test is the “nota­tions about hav­ing to get every answer cor­rect,” as you so elo­quent­ly put. It is giv­en by the DIRECT QUOTE “Be care­ful as one wrong answer denotes fail­ure of the test.” Sor­ry to tell you that your own com­pre­hen­sion of the Eng­lish lan­guage has failed you, guess you’re not smart enough to vote either!

  • Dominaxor says:

    This com­ment sec­tion the exact def­i­n­i­tion of reverse evo­lu­tion.

  • Wild Dog says:

    You must be black, a cir­cle is a type of line.

  • Apachon says:

    Is there any link to the right answers?
    like for this one https://www.crmvet.org/info/la-littest2.pdf

  • John Doe says:

    In No 27: What is the object of the sen­tence and thus the objec­tive of the ques­tion?
    “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.”
    Prob­a­bly “it”. But “it” can be the whole sen­tence but also the word “right” or “from the left to the right”.

    I think many ques­tions are ambigu­ous on pur­pose.
    But what do i kno, i am not a native speak­er. It’s hard for me as and i sup­porse would have been herd for many back in 60s

    The test is good but it should be tak­en by every­one regard­less race, and should have been a list for any valid answer (even for some para­dox­i­cal­ly genius- “out of the box”). Cause Democ­ra­cy to work right, needs smart enought to under­stand the trick­ery of the lan­guage cit­i­zens, that won’t fall for any dem­a­gogue

  • phylicia5972@gmail.com says:

    If you did­n’t pass 5th grade I don’t think so. I could­n’t fin­ish this 30 ques­tion test in 10 min due to me re read­ing the ques­tions.

  • Naima says:

    Agreed and most of his die-hard sup­port­ers would­n’t either lmao. Polling even proved vot­ers of Trump in both 2016 and 2020 were less edu­cat­ed than their Clin­ton and Biden coun­ter­parts.

  • Soylet Transberg says:

    “Impos­si­ble”. Yeah, come on. An actu­al child could com­plete these ques­tions.

  • xxx says:

    If you think you passed this, and think you’re smart because of that, you’re actu­al­ly too stu­pid to under­stand the test and its pur­pose. It’s not that a cir­cle is a line, it’s that the instruc­tions are inten­tion­al­ly ambigu­ou. THey say “line around” in some ques­tions and “cir­cle” in oth­ers. There is sub­jec­tiv­i­ty on most of these that any­one “grad­ing” it can pass or fail peo­ple who “got it right” Take ques­tion 11. Is it talk­ing about the num­ber below the sen­tence, or is it talk­ing about mak­ing the num­ber below one mil­lion? If you cross it out and make it 1000000 they can say it’s wrong because one mil­lion isn’t below one mil­lion. If you make it 100000 they can say it’s wrong because they want­ed you to cross out the num­ber below to make it equal to one mil­lion.

  • KUNTA KENTAY says:

    Yeah and vot­ing for the same peo­ple who made these tests in the first place.

  • Mak says:

    I wish every­one had to take this too! This is the test black peo­ple had to take back in the day, which was sneaky because it looks pret­ty sim­ple but the word­ing throws you off. Every­one should have to take this once just so we all see what black peo­ple had to go through to be able to vote! My his­to­ry teacher showed it to us and it was real­ly cool to see but also I was sur­prised at the ques­tions. They seam real­ly sim­ple but the word­ing is weid. I do not have the answers so I don’t know how i did but a lot of the ques­tions were impos­si­ble like draw a line around the num­ber… You cant draw a line AROUND some­thing. I am very anoyed.

  • Xcyelm says:

    I know it has been over 5 years but this com­ment is so dumb I could not ignore it. Yes, a cou­ple of these ques­tions seem ambigu­ous and/or sub­jec­tive, but the “draw a line” ques­tion is the dumb­est hill to die on. It sounds like an argu­ment a 12yr old would make after los­ing his geom­e­try text­book before he could get past the first chap­ter. Euclid lived around 300 BCE, hope­ful­ly that’s long enough for you to accept him as suf­fi­cient­ly peer reviewed and backed by empir­i­cal data when it comes to what is known as a CURVED LINE. I’m assum­ing the test is not ask­ing for an Alge­bra­ic or tran­scen­den­tal curve as there is no require­ment to pro­vide the poly­no­mi­al that would show the loca­tion of the set points on the Euclid­ean plane, but is mere­ly ask­ing for a sim­ple open curve. A line drawn from one point to anoth­er. No sym­me­try, no short­est dis­tance. Obvi­ous­ly these tests were cre­at­ed to oppress…along with prop­er­ty tests, and the grand­fa­ther clause, and the poll tax, and vot­ing roll purges, and good old fash­ioned vio­lence… but of all the sub­jec­tive ques­tions the “draw a line” is not it. Of course I can’t help but real­ize, me wish­ing you would edu­cate your­self before try­ing to make such a ter­ri­ble point… the irony is pal­pa­ble.

  • Addison says:

    I guess no one will know.

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