Literacy Tests Lasting Impact on America’s Political Landscape

If you were living in the South in the early 1960s and wanted to vote, you first had to answer some very difficult questions.

At least if you were Black, you did.

Literacy tests have been used in the United States since the early 1800s as a way to restrict voting rights for African Americans. The first literacy test law was passed in Connecticut in 1818, and by the end of the 19th century, most southern states had passed similar laws.

Literacy tests were often administered in a discriminatory manner, with white applicants being given easier tests than African Americans. In addition, African Americans were often harassed and intimidated when they tried to register to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that prevented African Americans from voting. However, some states have continued to use literacy tests in recent years, despite challenges from civil rights groups.

Key Events in the History of Literacy Tests in America

  • 1818: Connecticut passes the first literacy test law in the United States.
  • 1865: The 15th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote.
  • 1890s: Most southern states pass literacy test laws.
  • 1915: The Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of literacy tests in the case of Guinn v. United States.
  • 1957: The Civil Rights Act of 1957 prohibits literacy tests that are administered in a discriminatory manner.
  • 1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlaws literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that prevent African Americans from voting.
  • 2013: The Supreme Court strikes down a voter ID law in North Carolina that was found to discriminate against African American voters.

The Legacy of Literacy Tests

Literacy tests have had a lasting impact on the political landscape of the United States. They have been used to disenfranchise African Americans and other marginalized groups, and they have contributed to the low voter turnout rates in the United States.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a major victory for civil rights activists, but it did not completely eliminate the use of literacy tests. Some states have continued to use literacy tests in recent years, despite challenges from civil rights groups.

The legacy of literacy tests is a reminder of the long history of discrimination in the United States. It is also a reminder of the importance of protecting the right to vote for all Americans.

Can you pass the Jim Crow Literacy Test?

Literacy tests were one of the most effective ways the white power structure in Alabama and across the Deep South kept Black Americans from voting. With a hugely consequential election on the horizon this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center is excited to launch The South’s Got Now | Decidimos. A bilingual voter engagement campaign in English and Spanish, The South’s Got Now | Decidimos (which means “we decide”) will educate and energize young people of color in the Deep South as they build their power as changemakers. – SPLC 

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