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

by | Permalink | Comments (68) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (68)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.