Literacy test

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Editorial cartoon from the January 18, 1879, issue of Harper's Weekly criticizing the use of literacy tests. It shows "Mr. Solid South" writing on wall, "Eddikashun qualifukashun. The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites, signed Mr. Solid South." The color line still exists--in this case cph.3b29638.jpg
Editorial cartoon from the January 18, 1879, issue of Harper's Weekly criticizing the use of literacy tests. It shows "Mr. Solid South" writing on wall, "Eddikashun qualifukashun. The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites, signed Mr. Solid South."

A literacy test assesses a person's literacy skills: their ability to read and write. Literacy tests have been administered by various governments to immigrants. In the United States, between the 1850s [1] and 1960s, literacy tests were administered to prospective voters, and this had the effect of disenfranchising African Americans and others.

Literacy ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word; ability to read, write, and use arithmetic

Dictionaries traditionally define literacy as the ability to read and write. In the modern world, this is one way of interpreting literacy. One more broad interpretation sees literacy as knowledge and competence in a specific area. The concept of literacy has evolved in meaning. The modern term's meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge, solve mathematical problems and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture. The concept of literacy is expanding across OECD countries to include skills to access knowledge through technology and ability to assess complex contexts. A person who travels and resides in a foreign country but is unable to read or write in the language of the host country would be regarded by the locals as illiterate.



From the 1890s to the 1960s, many state governments in the United States administered literacy tests to prospective voters purportedly to test their literacy in order to vote. In practice, these tests were intended to disenfranchise racial minorities. Southern state legislatures employed literacy tests as part of the voter registration process starting in the late 19th century. Literacy tests, along with poll taxes, residency and property restrictions and extra-legal activities (violence, intimidation) [2] were all used to deny suffrage to African Americans. The first formal voter literacy tests were introduced in 1890. At first, whites were generally exempted from the literacy test if they could meet alternate requirements that in practice excluded blacks, such as a grandfather clause or a finding of "good moral character"

Southern United States Cultural region of the United States

The southern United States, also known as the American South, Dixie, Dixieland, or simply the South, is a region of the United States of America. It is located between the Atlantic Ocean and the western United States, with the midwestern United States and northeastern United States to its north and the Gulf of Mexico and Mexico to its south.

African Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States.

A grandfather clause is a provision in which an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule will apply to all future cases. Those exempt from the new rule are said to have grandfather rights or acquired rights, or to have been grandfathered in. Frequently, the exemption is limited; it may extend for a set time, or it may be lost under certain circumstances. For example, a "grandfathered power plant" might be exempt from new, more restrictive pollution laws, but the exception may be revoked and the new rules would apply if the plant were expanded. Often, such a provision is used as a compromise or out of practicality, to allow new rules to be enacted without upsetting a well-established logistical or political situation. This extends the idea of a rule not being retroactively applied.

In Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959), the U.S. Supreme Court held that literacy tests were not necessarily violations of Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nor of the Fifteenth Amendment. Southern states abandoned the literacy test only when forced to do so by federal legislation in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided that literacy tests used as a qualification for voting in federal elections be administered wholly in writing and only to persons who had completed six years of formal education.

Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1959), was a case challenging the constitutionality of the rule of Northampton County, North Carolina requiring potential voters to pass a literacy test to vote, appealed from the Supreme Court of that state.

Civil Rights Act of 1964 legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark civil rights and labor law in the United States that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.

In part to curtail the use of literacy tests, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act prohibited jurisdictions from administering literacy tests to citizens who attained a sixth-grade education in an American school in which the predominant language was Spanish, such as schools in Puerto Rico. [3] The Supreme Court upheld this provision in Katzenbach v. Morgan (1966). Although the Court had earlier held in Lassiter that literacy tests did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, [4] in Morgan the Court held that Congress could enforce Fourteenth Amendment rights—such as the right to vote—by prohibiting conduct it deemed to interfere with such rights, even if that conduct may not be independently unconstitutional. [5] [6]

Voting Rights Act of 1965 Piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Civil Rights Movement on August 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act secured the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.

Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966), was a United States Supreme Court case regarding the power of Congress, pursuant to Section 5 of the 14th Amendment, to enact laws that enforce and interpret provisions of the Constitution.

As originally enacted, the Voting Rights Act also suspended the use of literacy tests in all jurisdictions in which less than 50% of voting-age residents were registered as of November 1, 1964, or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. In 1970, Congress amended the Act and expanded the ban on literacy tests to the entire country. [7] The Supreme Court then upheld the ban as constitutional in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970), but just for federal elections. The Court was deeply divided in this case, and a majority of justices did not agree on a rationale for the holding. [8] [9]

Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970), was a Supreme Court case which held that the United States Congress could set voting age requirements for federal elections but not for local or state elections. The case also upheld Congress's nationwide prohibition on literacy tests and similar "tests or devices" used as voting qualifications as defined in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


The literacy test was a device to restrict the total number of immigrants while not offending the large element of ethnic voters. The "old" immigration (British, Irish, German, Scandinavian) had fallen off and was replaced by a "new" immigration from Italy, Russia and other points in Southern and eastern Europe. The "old" immigrants were voters and strongly approved of restricting the "new" immigrants. All groups of American voters strongly opposed Chinese and Asian immigration. The 1896 Republican platform called for a literacy test. [10]

The American Federation of Labor took the lead in promoting literacy tests that would exclude illiterate immigrants, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. A majority of the labor union membership were immigrants or sons of immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia and Britain, but the literacy test would not hinder immigration from those countries. [11]

Corporate industry however, needed new workers for its mines and factories and opposed any restrictions on immigration. [12] In 1906, the House Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon, a conservative Republican, worked aggressively to defeat a proposed literacy test for immigrants. A product of the western frontier, Cannon felt that moral probity was the only acceptable test for the quality of an immigrant. He worked with Secretary of State Elihu Root and President Theodore Roosevelt to set up the "Dillingham Commission," a blue ribbon body of experts that produced a 41-volume study of immigration. The Commission recommended a literacy test and the possibility of annual quotas. [13] Presidents Cleveland and Taft vetoed literacy tests in 1897 and 1913. President Wilson did the same in 1915 and 1917, but the test was passed over Wilson's second veto. [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution Grants voting rights to all citizens of the United States, regardless of race

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". It was ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.

Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution Prohibits poll taxes, requiring people to pay a tax for the right to vote

The Twenty-fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits both Congress and the states from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other types of tax. The amendment was proposed by Congress to the states on August 27, 1962, and was ratified by the states on January 23, 1964.

Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution Guarantees all adult ages the right to vote; prohibits denying voting rights on the basis of age to any American at least 18 years old

The Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the states and the federal government from using age as a reason for denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States who are at least eighteen years old. It was proposed by Congress on March 23, 1971, and ratified on July 1, 1971, the quickest ratification of an amendment in history.

A Congressional power of enforcement is included in a number of amendments to the United States Constitution. The language "The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation" is used, with slight variations, in Amendments XIII, XIV, XV, XIX, XXIII, XXIV, and XXVI. The variations in the pertinent language are as follows: The Thirteenth Amendment leaves out the word "the", the Fourteenth Amendment states "The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article." In addition to the amendments above, the Eighteenth Amendment states "The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915), was a United States Supreme Court decision that dealt with provisions of state constitutions that set qualifications for voters. It found grandfather clause exemptions to literacy tests to be unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Constitution, while appearing to treat all voters equally, allowed an exemption to the literacy requirement for those voters whose grandfathers had either been eligible to vote before January 1, 1866 or were then a resident of "some foreign nation", or were soldiers. It was an exemption that favored white voters while it disenfranchised black voters, most of whose grandfathers had been slaves and therefore unable to vote before 1866.

City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), was a United States Supreme Court case concerning the scope of Congress's enforcement power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case also had a significant impact on historic preservation.

Voting rights in the United States Suffrage in American elections

The issue of voting rights in the United States, specifically the enfranchisement and disenfranchisement of different groups, has been contested throughout United States history.

Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), was a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that Virginia's poll tax was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eleven southern states established poll taxes as part of their disenfranchisement of most blacks and many poor whites. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1964) prohibited poll taxes in federal elections; five states continued to require poll taxes for voters in state elections. By this ruling, the Supreme Court banned the use of poll taxes in state elections.

Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898), is a United States Supreme Court case that reviewed provisions of the state constitution that set requirements for voter registration. The Supreme Court did not find discrimination in the state's requirements for voters to pass a literacy test and pay poll taxes, as these were applied to all voters.

Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that disproportionate effects alone — i.e. absent purposeful discrimination — are insufficient to establish a claim of racial discrimination affecting voting.

Reconstruction Amendments Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution

The Reconstruction Amendments are the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, adopted between 1865 and 1870, the five years immediately following the Civil War. The last time the Constitution had been amended was with the Twelfth Amendment more than 60 years earlier in 1804. The Reconstruction amendments were important in implementing the Reconstruction of the American South after the war. Their proponents saw them as transforming the United States from a country that was "half slave and half free" to one in which the constitutionally guaranteed "blessings of liberty" would be extended to the entire populace, including the former slaves and their descendants.

White primaries were primary elections held in the Southern United States in which only white voters were permitted to participate. Statewide white primaries were established by the state Democratic Party units or by state legislatures in South Carolina (1896), Florida (1902), Mississippi and Alabama, Texas (1905), Louisiana and Arkansas (1906), and Georgia (1908). The white primary was one method used by white Democrats to disenfranchise most black and other minority voters. They also passed laws and constitutions with provisions to raise barriers to voter registration, completing disenfranchisement from 1890 to 1908 in all states of the former Confederacy.

Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era in the United States of America was based on a series of laws, new constitutions, and practices in the South that were deliberately used to prevent black citizens from registering to vote and voting. These measures were enacted by the former Confederate states at the turn of the 20th century, and by Oklahoma when it gained statehood in 1907, although not by the former border slave states. Their actions were designed to frustrate the objective of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870, which sought to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War.

South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966), is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court rejected a challenge from the state of South Carolina to the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required that some states submit changes in election districts to the Attorney General of the United States. The preclearance provisions were ruled constitutional and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enforced in full.

United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1876), was a voting rights case in which the United States Supreme Court narrowly construed the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides that suffrage for citizens can not be restricted due to race, color or the individual having previously been a slave.

Black suffrage is Black people's right to vote. Black suffrage has been at issue in countries established under conditions of white supremacy. It may be limited through official or informal discrimination. In many places, black people have obtained suffrage through national independence. It should also be pointed out that "Black suffrage" in the United States in the aftermath of the American Civil War explicitly refers to "Black Male Suffrage". While women citizens, regardless of race, held rights to vote in some states, at the federal level, the U.S. Constitution was not interpreted to prohibit discrimination against women in voting, regardless of their race, until the passage of the 19th Amendment which was ratified by the United States Congress on August 18 and then certified by law on August 26, 1920.

This is a timeline of voting rights in the United States.


  1. "Literacy Tests and the Right To Vote -".
  2. "Civil Rights Movement -- Literacy Tests & Voter Applications".
  3. Voting Rights Act of 1965 § 4(e); 52 U.S.C.   § 10303(e) (formerly 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(e))
  4. Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections , 360 U.S. 45 (1959)
  5. Buss, William G. (January 1998). "Federalism, Separation of Powers, and the Demise of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act". Iowa Law Review. 83: 405–406. Retrieved January 7, 2014.(Subscription required.)
  6. Katzenbach v. Morgan , 384 U.S. 641 (1966), pp. 652–656
  7. Williamson, Richard A. (1984). "The 1982 Amendments to the Voting Rights Act: A Statutory Analysis of the Revised Bailout Provisions". Washington University Law Review. 62 (1): 5–9. Retrieved August 29, 2013.
  8. Tok ji, Daniel P. (2006). "Intent and Its Alternatives: Defending the New Voting Rights Act" (PDF). Alabama Law Review. 58: 353. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  9. Oregon v. Mitchell , 400 U.S. 112 (1970), pp. 188–121
  10. Gratton, Brian (2011). "Demography and Immigration Restriction in American History". In Goldstone, Jack A. Political Demography: How Population Changes Are Reshaping International Security and National Politics. pp. 159–75. ISBN   978-0-19-994596-2.
  11. Lane, A. T. (1984). "American Trade Unions, Mass Immigration and the Literacy Test: 1900–1917". Labor History. 25 (1): 5–25. doi:10.1080/00236568408584739.
  12. Goldin, Claudia (1994). "The political economy of immigration restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921". The regulated economy: A historical approach to political economy. U. of Chicago Press. pp. 223–258. ISBN   0-226-30110-9.
  13. Zeidel, Robert F. (1995). "Hayseed Immigration Policy: 'Uncle Joe' Cannon and the Immigration Question". Illinois Historical Journal. 88 (3): 173–188. JSTOR   40192956.
  14. Henry Bischoff (2002). Immigration Issues. Greenwood. p. 156.

Further reading