Harvard students attempt to take 1964 Louisiana Literacy test, fail
A video showing Harvard students trying to pass a 1964 Louisiana Literacy test was released on Monday to bring awareness to barriers to voting in the past.
The video was launched just prior to Tuesday’s elections and brought light to racism and classism in voting practices in the American South during the 1960s.
The video’s description indicated that the challenge was inspired by the fact that “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.”
Not a single student at Harvard, one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, was capable of passing the test successfully, despite the test being allegedly meant to prove that the taker possessed only a fifth-grade education.
The majority of the questions are “purposely ambiguous” and meant to induce errors, such as writing the word “vote” upside down, or one question that requests the test-taker write right from left to right as it was seen on the page.
It is unclear from the video what the exact instructions are for many of the questions, which was the intention of test, according to the video’s description, which says “no one can pass the test. You see, Louisiana’s literacy test was designed to be failed.” Actually viewing the test questions for oneself does little to help matters of clarity.
Another question asks the taker to list a word that is printed the same both forward and backwards, presumably referencing a palindrome. The ambiguous language, however, ensures that the taker can get the question “wrong” even if they supply a valid answer.
Students in the video voice their surprise and frustration with the test as they try to work their way through the complex questions. One student says “I would just feel so demoralized. [It’s] basically them telling me to turn around and go home.”
Another student says, “I mean, I want to feel good that people aren’t given this test [any more], but it seems like the same thing is just happening in maybe more subtle ways.” The last student in the video agrees, saying, “I think the modern day equivalent to this test are the voter ID laws that we’ve seen legalized in several states in the South.”
The end of the video indicates that those curious about the test can take it themselves simply by Googling “Louisiana 1964 Literacy Test.” Alternatively, they can visit this article on Slate.