‘Literacy’ Tests for Voting: What Racism Looked Like in 1964

From literacy tests to voter ID laws, the right to vote remains threatened. Watch as Harvard students attempt to pass the 1964 Louisiana literacy test as part of a project that raises awareness about barriers to voting.

In October of 2014, we gave a group of Harvard students a test. But it was not just any test. It was the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test. Exactly 50 years ago, states in the American South issued this exact test to any voter who could not “prove a fifth grade education.” Unsurprisingly, the only people who ever saw this test were blacks and, to a lesser extent, poor whites trying to vote in the South. In order to pass, voters needed to answer all 30 questions correctly in 10 minutes. Just one question wrong was grounds for disenfranchisement.

Since this test, in principle, was equivalent to proving a fifth grade education, we thought it might be interesting to see if some of the brightest young minds in the world could pass this literacy test. We did our best to recreate the testing conditions that black and poor white voters faced back in 1964. Thirty questions. Ten minutes. Not a single question wrong. If anyone could pass a basic literacy test, it would be Harvard students right?

Wrong. None of them passed the test. None of them passed the test because no one can pass the test. You see, 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 legitimate sounding, but devious measure that the State of Louisiana used to disenfranchise people that had the wrong skin tone or belonged to the wrong social class. Most of the test’s questions are purposely ambiguous. No matter what was written down, the registrar official would simply say the person’s interpretation of the question was wrong. And just like that, countless black and poor white voters in the South were disenfranchised.

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