At the end of civil war in America a number of tests appeared which the poor and little educated had to pass in order to be able to vote. Although supposedly for all those who could not prove their level of education, these were overwhelmingly administered to the coloured population. Most were some form of ‘citizenship’ test composed of US trivia, but this one from Louisiana in 1963-4 is a literacy test, designed to do, well, we’re not really sure; probably designed to get as many people to fail as possible (one mistake and you’re out – no right to vote). It was supposed to be administered to anyone who couldn’t prove a 5th-grade level of education, but in practice almost all blacks were forced to take it even if they had a college degree while whites were often excused from taking it regardless of education level.
So here’s an example of how seemingly simple words can be put together to jargogle your brain. The following questions are taken straight out of the ‘literacy’ test:
Q1. Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence.
Q5. Circle the first, first letter of the alphabet in this line.
Q15. 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.
Q20. Spell backwards, forwards.
Q21. Print the word vote upside down, but in the correct order.
Q27. Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.
Q29. Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line, (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write.
Are you confused? I sure am.
Determination of who “passed” and who “failed” was entirely up to the whim of the Registrar of Voters — all of whom were white. Strangely enough, whites almost always “passed” no matter how many questions they missed, and Blacks almost always “failed” by getting a question wrong.
Here’s an example of how the questions could be judged:
E.g. Q27 “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.” If a Black person were to print the answer, he/she would be failed because it says “write” so cursive writing was required. Not so for white people. If a Black person were to write “right” he/she would be failed. Why? Because, the registrar would say, you’re supposed to write “right from the left to the right”. If a Black person were to write “right from the left to the right”, he/she would be failed. Why? Because, the registrar would say, you’re supposed to write “right from the left to the right as you see it here.” But not for white applicants; for them, any answer would be accepted.
So in the summer of 1964, a bunch of students at Ohio State University decided to administer this ‘literacy’ test to fellow students, but this time “failing” all the white students and giving them a complementary ‘I’m illiterate‘ badge to wear as a sign of demonstration against this overt racism. This led to a voting rights march on campus to urge our U.S. senators to vote for the Voting Rights bill which became law in 1965 and outlawed discriminatory voting practices.
I’d love to find one of these badges somewhere, what a great little piece of history to have on your lapel.