Resurfaced literacy tests are a reminder of pre-Voting Rights Act era

Turning back the clock, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision on Shelby County v. Holder, struck down the key Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which originally required nine states (Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and Alaska) with a history of racial discrimination to get federal permission to change their voter laws.

In recent years, parts of Florida, California, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire also fell under this mandate.

Although discussions about the history of African-American disenfranchisement in this country largely center on poll taxes, literacy tests were also a primary tool used to keep black voters from the ballot box, especially in the South. Beginning around 1890, literacy tests, many impossible to pass, were routinely given to African-Americans.

A history of voter suppression revisited

In the wake of the devastating Supreme Court decision, several websites have posted examples of these tests to illustrate the absurdity found in many of them.

For example, “In the space below, write the word “noise” backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward” is one of the questions that appears on a literary test once given in Louisiana.

Interestingly, the first known literacy test did not originate in the South. In an effort to keep Irish-Catholic immigrants from voting, Connecticut adopted the nation’s first literacy test in 1855, with Massachusetts following suit in 1857. Angered by the many advances of Reconstruction that sent former slaves to state legislatures in large numbers, as well as some federal offices, the white power structure in Southern states began actively blocking such progress, with literacy tests becoming one of its most sinister tools.

South Carolina’s “eight-box” ballot in which voters were required to place ballots for separate offices in separate boxes, adopted in 1882, is considered the first literacy test in the South specifically used to disenfranchise black voters. Illiterate voters could not be assisted by anyone literate and any miscast ballot was thrown out. At this time, it is estimated that 40 to 60 percent of African-Americans were illiterate in comparison with only 8 to 18 percent of whites.

By 1890, Mississippi and many other states began using literacy tests as well. When white voters also failed the test, the “grandfather clause” exempting men whose grandfathers could vote prior to 1870 — when black men’s right to vote was ratified — from the test was widely adopted.

Separate but equal

Obviously the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling by the Supreme Court in 1896 declaring segregation or “separate but equal” to be constitutional provided a tremendous boon to practices that disenfranchised African-Americans. That vicious momentum continued in 1898 when the Supreme Court upheld that literacy tests and other provisions from the Mississippi constitution passed in 1890 as constitutional in Williams v. Mississippi.

Perhaps even more devastating was the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Giles v. Harris in 1903. In the case, which Booker T. Washington, who was known for his silence on African-American voting rights, secretly funded, Jackson W. Giles, a literate black man who had voted from 1871 to 1901, sued to have the federal court require Alabama to register him and more than five thousand other black Montgomery citizens to vote. A test of the potential voter’s understanding of citizenship was administered to prevent blacks from voting.