Watch Harvard Students Fail the Literacy Test Louisiana Used to Suppress the Black Vote in 1964

This sum­mer, we revis­it­ed a lit­er­a­cy test from the Jim Crow South. Giv­en pre­dom­i­nant­ly to African-Amer­i­cans liv­ing in Louisiana in 1964, the test con­sist­ed of 30 ambigu­ous ques­tions to be answered in 10 min­utes. One wrong answer, and the test-tak­er was denied the right to vote. It was all part of the South’s attempt to impede free and fair elec­tions, and ensure that African-Amer­i­cans had no access to pol­i­tics or mech­a­nisms of pow­er.

How hard was the test? You can take it your­self below (see an answer key here)  and find out. Just recent­ly, the same lit­er­a­cy test was also admin­is­tered to Har­vard stu­dents — stu­dents who can, if any­thing, ace a stan­dard­ized test — and not one passed. The ques­tions are tricky. But even worse, if push comes to shove, the ques­tions and answers can be inter­pret­ed in dif­fer­ent ways by offi­cials grad­ing the exam. Carl Miller, a res­i­dent tutor at Har­vard and a fel­low at the law school, told The Dai­ly Mail: “Louisiana’s lit­er­a­cy test was designed to be failed. Just like all the oth­er lit­er­a­cy tests issued in the South at the time, this test was not about test­ing lit­er­a­cy at all. It was a … devi­ous mea­sure that the State of Louisiana used to dis­en­fran­chise peo­ple that had the wrong skin tone or belonged to the wrong social class.” (Some­times the test was also giv­en to poor whites.) Above, you can watch scenes from the Har­vard exper­i­ment and stu­dents’ reac­tions.




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Comments (35)
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  • Peterk says:

    “. It was all part of the South’s attempt to impede free and fair elec­tions, and ensure that African-Amer­i­cans had no access to pol­i­tics or mech­a­nisms of pow­er.”
    Lets be accu­rate here. it was all part of the DEMOCRATIC par­ty’s effort. don’t blame the entire South. Jim Crow and seg­re­ga­tion were imposed upon South­ern states by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty. don’t bury the his­to­ry. Repub­li­cans exist­ed in those states as a minor­i­ty par­ty but worked to change the laws.
    also don’t for­get that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty worked to keep firearms out of the hands of the black com­mu­ni­ty

  • jem says:

    Let’s be even more accu­rate Peterk: The South­ern Democ­rats of 1964 ARE the Repub­li­cans and Tea Partiers of 2014–white,patriarchal, reli­gious conservatives–and are pre­cise­ly the peo­ple who want­ed to sup­press the minor­i­ty vote, then and now. And they’re more than hap­py to keep guns (and mon­ey, and pow­er) out of the hands of black people–generally by oppress­ing, silenc­ing, or jail­ing as many black peo­ple as pos­si­ble.

  • JP Musselboro says:

    Peterk — Of course, as every­one knows, you are refer­ring to the so-called “South­ern Democ­rats,” who left en masse for the Repub­li­can par­ty as soon as the Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship stood up for civ­il rights. There’s the his­to­ry of the mod­ern Repub­li­can par­ty, why to this day it is a par­ty full of big­ots and morons.

    You either don’t know this his­to­ry (and thus are igno­rant), or know it and are pre­tend­ing not to (and thus are hyp­ocrit­cal­ly “bury­ing” it your­self).

  • C Roberts says:

    It’s a great test. I’m a south­ern dem.

  • steve says:

    Seri­ous ques­tion: Do you believe in uni­ver­sal suf­frage? Would you think me unrea­son­able for believ­ing that those who are net tax ben­e­fi­cia­ries, func­tion­al­ly illit­er­ate, whol­ly enu­mer­ate and demon­stra­bly inca­pable of speak­ing with­out say­ing, “like” like a Touret­te’s vic­tim prob­a­bly should­n’t be able to vote?

  • AlexO says:

    Steve, I would in fact think it unrea­son­able of you to think that peo­ple who are func­tion­al­ly illit­er­ate or not par­tic­u­lar­ly artic­u­late should not be allowed to vote. Polit­i­cal deci­sions affect these peo­ple. Why should­n’t they be allowed to vote for the par­ties or can­di­dates who make such deci­sions?

  • Christopher Palermo says:

    Very sad. Chill­ing.

  • Hanoch says:


    You note that “[i]f there’s a prob­lem, it’s not the scope of suf­frage; it’s our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem.” I tend to agree with that point.

    It is worth remem­ber­ing that near­ly all of the stu­dents you men­tion are grad­u­ates of pub­lic ele­men­tary schools which are con­trolled, to a large extent, by pub­lic sec­tor employ­ee unions. Any time a vir­tu­al monop­oly exists for a prod­uct or ser­vice, there is a sig­nif­i­cant risk that the qual­i­ty of that prod­uct or ser­vice will be degrad­ed.

    When these kids enter col­lege, they then encounter — par­tic­u­lar­ly in the human­i­ties — a sys­tem that leans more toward indoc­tri­na­tion than edu­ca­tion. It is iron­ic that these insti­tu­tions which preach “diver­si­ty” when it comes to race, are vir­tu­al­ly one-dimen­sion­al when it comes to the view­points of their fac­ul­ty staff.

  • Bill says:

    What’s even more sur­pris­ing, is that there was SOMEONE in Louisiana who was clever enough to write ques­tions that even Har­vard grads could­n’t answer! I’d be curi­ous if the ques­tion-writer had an answer-key…

  • Tony says:

    If Har­vard stu­dents can’t fig­ure this out then they don’t belong at har­vard.

  • Paul says:

    Chris Paler­mo :

    ‘Chill­ing’ was the very word that came to mind as I went through the test.

  • Travis says:

    Hey Tony, what’s your answer for num­ber 6? 21? How about 28 or 30? What is the dif­fer­ence between “draw­ing a line around” some­thing and “cir­cling” some­thing? Can you even parse ques­tion 29? I don’t think you’re half as smart as you think you are.

  • Dave says:

    Yay!! I’m Cana­di­an!!

  • Paul says:

    Who­ev­er does not pass this test should not be allowed to pay tax­es!!!

  • Rufus T. Firefly says:

    Well at least one did­n’t have to guess the num­ber of gum balls/peanuts/pennies in a jar.….or inter­pret the con­sti­tu­tion as what was done here in Alaba­ma on top of pay­ing a cumu­la­tive poll tax.

  • Jan says:

    I don’t get it. Though they’re real­ly stu­pid ques­tions and seem more like an IQ test for chil­dren than a lit­er­a­cy test, and shock­ing to this day that these tests were giv­en to peo­ple before they could vote. But the issue here is that every­one, includ­ing Har­vard stu­dents, would not be able to answer them. I think they’re fak­ing it. I’m not a genius, but I could answer them. Come on peo­ple, look at the ques­tions. They’re easy to answer,

  • Scott says:

    I was sur­prised at how crap­py these stu­dents that made it into Har­vard were at these ques­tions, so I down­loaded it and took it myself. I missed num­ber 29, because I think the ques­tion was poor­ly writ­ten when you con­sid­er the com­pli­cat­ed sequen­tial nature of steps required to arrive at the desired answer. But these oth­ers, that had the stu­dents shak­ing their heads were indeed ele­men­tary. But for me and vot­ing, I guess I’d have been head­ing home if 29 was on there for me in 1964. The only thing real­ly unfair about this is if it were only giv­en to spe­cif­ic races and not oth­ers.

    Worth con­sid­er­ing, I’m with Eric above as he chal­lenges Dan with his seri­ous ques­tion. I think the more we encour­age and enable une­d­u­cat­ed and dis­en­gaged peo­ple to eas­i­ly vote, the more our poli­cies are able to be pur­chased with mon­ey pumped into adver­tis­ing.

    On that note, I think we’d do well to give an upgrad­ed ver­sion of this test to all would-be vot­ers. While tak­ing it, I sensed that it requires engage­ment of the part of the brain required to under­stand most laws that a per­son would be vot­ing for or against. I’m not talk­ing about x or y can­di­date. I’m talk­ing about under­stand­ing the laws and con­sti­tu­tion­al changes that are passed on a gen­er­al bal­lot. These are dan­ger­ous, lib­er­ty-threat­en­ing bal­lot items that are sub­ject­ed to a vote among peo­ple that often pos­sess mere anec­do­tal aware­ness.

    In sum­ma­ry, I’m all for it tak­ing effort and edu­ca­tion to be able to vote. I’m encour­aged by only hav­ing those vot­ing that have tak­en time to edu­cate them­selves about the pol­i­cy and its long and short term impact. Blind and impa­tient desires of a mass pop­u­la­tion will inevitably under­mine an oth­er­wise sus­tain­able repub­lic if the whims of an une­d­u­cat­ed peo­ple are real­ized through gen­er­al elec­tion bal­lots.

  • Scott says:

    Paul’s com­ment above about ‘draw a line around’ vs ‘cir­cle’ is a good point. The incon­sis­tent use of terms that could be inter­pret­ed dif­fer­ent­ly when view by a stu­dent of geom­e­try and a layper­son, seem like traps. Those areas of this test are where we have a real prob­lem with this type of test if it isn’t equal­ly sub­ject­ed to would-be vot­ers of all races. A line can­not be ‘drawn around some­thing’, as a cir­cle drawn upon request is the draw­ing of a known shape that will prove a per­son knows how to read and under­stand our lan­guage when it is used clear­ly.

    Sim­i­lar­ly, my fum­ble on #29 is because of how the prob­lem did­n’t clar­i­fy that it want­ed me to do the every oth­er word, THEN the every third word actions sep­a­rate­ly, or if I was expect­ed to do them both as part of a one-part solu­tion, as implied by their use of the word ‘and’. Also, I found a ver­sion of the test that includ­ed solu­tions out there and the ‘solu­tion’ pro­vid­ed on that doc­u­ment had the 5th word in the print­ed line cap­i­tal­ized, and not the 5th word of the writ­ten line, with “writ­ten” mean­ing cur­sive and “print­ed” mean­ing none-cur­sive. This ques­tion seems like it was intend­ed to sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the risk of fail­ure through ambi­gu­i­ty and over-com­pli­ca­tion, and would have like­ly been exclud­ed if the test were to be required by all races.

  • Paco says:

    Scott, you are a moron if you think this is fair. Please read the con­sti­tu­tion and the amend­ments.

  • Teh Gerg says:

    A con­sid­er­able num­ber of the ques­tions have NO cor­rect answer because they’re ambigu­ous, make too many assump­tions, or are oth­er­wise incom­pe­tent­ly word­ed.

  • beth says:

    The test shown on this page (above)and the linked answer key do not match up, either in the num­ber of ques­tions (30 here, answers for 19 on the key) or the num­ber­ing of the questions(eg: #30 here, is #19 on the key; ques­tions #14 to #24 here,are nowhere to be found on the key.)

    Does any­one know if each Par­rish had its own ver­sion of the test, an exam­ple of one Par­rish’s being what is shown above? Or has the orig­i­nal, *actu­al*, vote-sup­press­ing test given/used by LA in 1964, been ‘enhanced’ by someone(s)to the point of absur­di­ty?

    Has the test above, like so much else of this nature on the inter­webs, been ‘added to’ by someone(s)to ramp up the shock val­ue; by someone(s)who has tak­en some­thing tru­ly grave, some­thing we should *all* be cring­ing over and remem­ber, and turned it, instead, into some­thing we laugh about and dis­miss? Does any­one know? thanks, beth.

  • Rick says:

    Har­vard kids must not be very smart. That test is not THAT hard for an edu­cat­ed per­son. That said, a low % of peo­ple would pass it today.

  • AngelaS says:

    I am baf­fled by those who insist this test is easy, which would imply unam­bigu­ous. Just a few exam­ples of ambi­gu­i­ty:
    6. There are def­i­nite­ly three cir­cles. The way it reads, there could be two con­cen­tric cir­cles with one cir­cle out­side the oth­er two, or three con­cen­tric cir­cles.
    11. There is no way to be lit­er­al­ly cor­rect, as “the” in this instance is anal­o­gous to “a,” which is anal­o­gous to “one,” and cross­ing out any one num­ber won’t make 1,000,000. The most cor­rect pos­si­ble answer to the request as writ­ten is to cross out 1000000, but who would do that, espe­cial­ly when you have so many more ques­tions to read, and in 10 min­utes?
    29. Already cov­ered in this thread.
    30. This is gram­mat­i­cal­ly non-sen­si­cal, so the cor­rect answer should be no answer, but in prac­tice could be any­thing the grad­er want­ed it to be.

    I love read­ing (and am a super fast read­er), test-tak­ing (yes, real­ly), and log­ic puz­zles; have two degrees; and research every issue and can­di­date on my bal­lot before vot­ing. So, 1) I think I’m the kind of per­son most com­menters pre­fer to have vot­ing; and 2) I would very like­ly fail this test. Even at my read­ing speed, I like­ly could­n’t fin­ish. Add that to the ambi­gu­i­ty, and it’s a guar­an­teed fail.

  • Stephen says:

    My com­ment on the ear­li­er post .…

    “Stephen says … | July 23, 2014 / 11:15 pm
    It would be fun to admin­is­ter this test to incom­ing Har­vard under­grads or new Google employ­ees to see how they would do.”

  • Andrew says:

    I believe the point of the orig­i­nal posters was to show how incred­i­bly unfair the so called “jim crow” laws real­ly were. To answer one of the ques­tions posed above, these tests were ONLY required to be tak­en by non-white vot­ers. It is fair­ly obvi­ous that a per­son with­out an above aver­age prob­lem solv­ing skillset would have dif­fi­cul­ty pass­ing this test. IF the test was rewrit­ten with­out the ambi­gu­i­ty & trick ques­tions, with ques­tions deal­ing with cur­rent issues, his­to­ry, and the way our gov­ern­ment is sup­posed to work (by, of, and for the PEOPLE, for exam­ple,) and IF EVERYONE was required to take it before vot­ing (not required to PASS it, just to take it and see our own results,) there­by (hope­ful­ly) adding a bit of humil­i­ty and respect for the demo­c­ra­t­ic process to each vot­er, it could be a pos­i­tive thing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we all know that an edu­cat­ed, inde­pen­dent mind­ed popo­lace is the LAST THING the ‘pow­ers that be’ want, and there is no lim­it to the amount of OUR mon­ey they will spend to pre­vent such a thing.
    One oth­er com­ment, to the per­son who stat­ed that pub­lic school cur­ricu­lums are con­trolled by teach­ers unions, that may be the most ridicu­lous, igno­rant com­ment on this page. It is ter­ri­bly sad that so many peo­ple have been led to believe that Teach­ers are whol­ly rspon­si­ble for the sad state of our edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Cur­ricu­lums in this coun­try are set by politi­cians. Teach­ers MUST adhere to state-man­dat­ed teach­ing pro­grams. There are some poor teach­ers out there, cer­tain­ly, but thete are also a great many teach­ers who see the job as a call­ing, who do an incred­i­ble job of giv­ing our chil­dren both a decent edu­ca­tion and a sense of self worth com­bined with social respon­si­bil­i­ty that is all to rare these days. Igno­rant chil­dren come from igno­rant par­ents, not bad teach­ers. Deal with it.

  • J Brackett says:

    the test and the key pro­vid­ed do not match up, but then tak­ing this test and vot­ing do not match up either.….

  • Rudravarman Trivedi says:

    What lit­er­a­cy has doing with vot­ing? Despic­ca­ble sub­terfuge to keep negros from the polling sta­tions. Same thing with“registration”. Where i live noth­ing like that. U.s. is a devel­op­ing coun­try.

  • ADub says:

    Ah, Dan. You’d bet­ter look at the cross-tab­u­la­tion of states who are net tax ben­e­fi­cia­ries and those who vote Repub­li­can. You’ll prob­a­bly weep into your beer when you fig­ure out how many of your fel­low Reds would lose their elec­toral rights.

    (By the way, “enu­mer­ate” is what is done to spec­i­fy some­thing. “Innu­mer­ate” is the term for peo­ple who can’t iden­ti­fy num­bers. I’m sure you made the mis­take out of a desire to post with­out think­ing, but you real­ly should proof­read.)

    Sec­ond — and this is to all the peo­ple who dis­par­age the test — did you actu­al­ly do the whole thing in ten min­utes? Who kept the clock? Who got to grade the answers? Any chance there was any ambi­gu­i­ty that might have been used against you? And what year did *you* grad­u­ate from Har­vard?

  • OS says:

    The test is not meant to be passed. It may appear sim­ple but it is tricky and believe me the goal was to fail every stu­dent who took it. For all of those peo­ple who claim they could pass it, you have already seen the video and have had time to think about it. Not like tak­ing it cold. Any­way the test is a set up — intend­ed to fail the stu­dent. So the answer key prob­a­bly won’t have what the aver­age per­son would answer in ten min­utes of time. BTW ten min­utes means you only have 20 sec­onds per ques­tion.

  • wendy says:

    I have two mas­ter’s degrees. This is the dumb­est freakin test I’ve ever seen. Its obvi­ous­ly meant to set peo­ple up to fail.

  • [Openculture] {BOT} says:

    I had to take this test in school today, and let me tell you… for the peo­ple who think this test is “easy” that you are absolute­ly stu­pid in the mind. Keep in mind that this was­n’t just for black peo­ple, this was for some une­d­u­cat­ed white peo­ple too, and remem­ber, this was in 1950–1960. So they did­n’t have all this knowl­edge, even some of the smartest peo­ple there weren’t as smart as they passed off to be. So this was real­ly hard for them. [open­cul­ture facts!] Know that black peo­ple did­n’t get the same edu­ca­tion that we do these days.

    Remem­ber! No spam­ming or Adver­tis­ing!

  • dumbass says:

    who cares there was racism every­where and there still is. by both repub­li­cans and democ­rats!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • future harvard student graduated 3 years early says:

    i am a bit late to the par-tay!!!!!

  • current columbia student, harvard did not accept (chrisyopher paletmo fan) says:

    u clear­ly have gone har­vard. i am vau­gue­ly upset

  • hello dad says:

    elab­o­rate! u bad gram­mer boy/……

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