“Write right from left to the right as you see it spelled here.” Did you print your answer? If so, you got it wrong—it should have been written in cursive.
“Spell backwards, forwards.” Did you include a comma? Wrong. Did you omit the comma? That’s wrong, too.
These are only two of the 30 questions African Americans had to answer correctly in just 10 minutes to register to vote in the State of Louisiana in 1964. By the 1960s, literacy tests were one of the many hurdles blacks faced at the voting booth.
In an address to Congress on March 15, 1965, President Johnson declared his solidarity: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” 1964 Campaign Poster, Poster File: Politics, PR 055-05, New-York Historical Society, 85136d.
But neither violence, nor even the threat of death, was enough to deter African Americans from casting their ballots, so state governments established new measures, including poll taxes and literacy tests to curb voter turnout. At the turn of the 20th century, nearly 80 percent of African Americans were illiterate, and with this in mind, southern states began mandating literacy tests to systematically prevent African Americans from voting. Their exams were highly effective: by 1940, only three percent of eligible southern blacks were registered to vote. Although these exams claimed to test prospective voters’ literacy, some, like the 1964 Louisiana exam, did not include a single civics question—just ambiguously worded brainteasers. Moreover, only African Americans were required to take the exams that left blacks at the mercy of white registrars who single-handedly decided their fate. One wrong answer meant a failing grade; the tests were not meant to be passed. Even highly-educated test-takers struggled to master the absurd exam. Watch Harvard students voice their frustrations and ultimately flunk the quiz:
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. During March of 1965, thousands of African Americans walked across the state of Alabama to protest their deprivation of a basic Constitutional right: the right to vote. During the demonstration, all-white local and state police forces met several thousand peaceful African American marchers with night sticks and pepper spray, not once, but twice on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. During the marchers’ first attempt, cameramen captured the sanguine confrontation, dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” Their footage attracted national attention—national outrage followed. On March 21, demonstrators finally gained passage and began their five-day, 54-mile march to Montgomery. To learn more about the march, be sure to check out our ongoing exhibition showcasing its final day, Freedom Journey 1965.
Although the images included in this post (borrowed from our exhibition) are peaceful, let us not forget the political climate of the South during the 1960s—its brutality and violence—or the history of institutionalized exclusion African Americans faced at the polls.
Although black men had won the right to vote with the 1870 passage of the 15th Amendment (remember it would take women another 49 years), during the decade, the dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau and pull-out of Federal troops from the South meant blacks had to fend for themselves against the rising tide of white supremacist groups. Widespread terror and violence curbed African Americans’ rights—basic rights including the right to movement, to protest, to own property, and to a speedy trial with an impartial jury. Southern justice often left blacks dangling from nooses and out of the voting booth. A recent New York Times article, reported that almost 4,000 blacks were lynched between 1877 and 1950. These hangings were all racially motivated. Sometimes they were predicated upon flimsily-evidenced accusations, but often times they occurred simply because of the victim’s skin color. New-York Historical Society’s very own Director of Engineering, Ron Gilchrist, grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1950s and 1960s. As a kid, he remembered “seeing signs enforcing segregation that said things like: ‘coloreds go to the back.’ Water fountains and bathrooms were divided by race. And if you crossed those particular lines you would be brutally beaten.”
Stephen Somerstein, marchers waving flags, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer
“The issues of racial inequality and segregation were always a topic of conversation. And the only time you weren’t under that pressure was when you were in the black community,” Ron explained. Despite the obstacles, again African Americans fought back. Across the South, they created classes, where hopeful voters practiced taking the literacy exams. State governments responded by releasing new exams. The hurdles were endless.
Stephen Somerstein, Martin Luther King, Jr. at the podium, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer
This was the southern culture from which the Civil Rights Movement was born. In joining, participants faced violent—sometimes fatal—retribution for their determination to secure basic rights. Their bravery, courage, and unwavering dedication to establishing racial equality should not be forgotten. How are your test-taking skills? Do you think you can make the grade? Test your luck with the 1964 Louisiana literacy exam!