Are you smarter than a 5th grader? This was the question posed by Jeff Foxworthy’s (the “you might be a redneck if….” comedian) trivia game show. As viewers quickly learned, no, most of the contestants were NOT smarter than a 5th grader. Facts of history, geography, grammar and more had long slipped from their memories…while the same facts remained fresh in the minds of the 5th grade kids.
The show was mildly entertaining…the contestants were playing for money and the kids seemed to be having a good time. Whether one was as ‘smart’ as a 5th grader or not really didn’t matter, it was a game show, everyone was having fun.
Not so in 1960’s Louisiana…where whether or not you could prove yourself smarter than a 5th grader directly affected your right to vote.
At least, that is, if you were Black.
Louisiana was not the only State to present a literacy test to those wishing to vote. It is, however, the State that devised the most evil ‘literacy test’ I’ve ever seen. In 1964 Louisiana, in order to vote, you had to show proof of a 5th grade education (how on earth does one prove a 5th grade education?). If you were unable to provide PROOF of your elementary school education…you had a whopping 10 minutes to pass the ‘Literacy Test‘ (if you were Black)
While state law mandated that the test be given to everyone who could not verify that they had at least a 5th-grade education, in real life almost all Blacks were forced to do so even if they had a college degree while whites were often excused from taking it no matter how little education they had.
Determination of who “passed” and who “failed” was entirely up to the whim of the Registrar of Voters – all of whom were white. In actuality, whites almost always “passed” no matter how many questions they missed, and Blacks almost always “failed” in the selective judgement of the Registrar…. – Civil Rights Movement Veterans website
So, whites wrote the test. Whites judged the test. Whites made sure that only whites passed the test. Seems fair, yes? /facepalm
The Civil Rights Movement Veterans website has, in their amazing collection of history from that era, samples of several of those hateful tests.
I’m pickin’ on Louisiana because it is the one I happened across yesterday…and because, having dug a bit deeper, it is hands down the most vile and depraved of those tests I’ve seen.
Some of the people I have shown it to (my brothers, sister, parents, friends) thought it just HAD to be a joke…that there was no way anyone could have been that transparent in their attempts to steal the Constitutional right to vote from others. Across the board it was met with sadness…and anger.
While I am fully aware that such evil exists in man…it still boggles my mind to see it applied in such a black and white (heh) manner. No attempts to hide the intent. Blatant full bore no holds barred in your face loud and proud…RACISM. /shakes head
Not from 200 years ago…not from a point in history so far removed that those living were not affected by it. This was a mere 5 years before my birth. My parents were nearly of voting age themselves (while they were 19yrs old in ’64…it was not until ’71 that the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age 18). This is a test that men and women living today had to take. A test they were told they had failed. A test that prevented them from exercising their right to vote. I truly cannot even begin to imagine living in a country, still, with those memories (and worse) so easily accessed.
I am beginning to ramble a bit, as I am wont to doing. If I continue it will just turn into a long-winded poorly punctuated rant (I know I must drive the teachers and grammar police bonkers).
My main point in this was to show y’all the 1964 Louisiana Literacy test below.
Please take the time to read it through…but, remember, you only have 10 minutes and if you miss one you fail. If you fail…you lose one of the most powerful rights this country has to offer.
*you may have noticed the word “have” missing from the last question on the test, now, to be fair (/snort), it was not missing from the original test: Scan of original 1964 test.
Let me leave you with this.
Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, only 31.6 percent of the Black population in Louisiana was registered to vote statewide – mostly in the New Orleans area – and a far lower percentage in the counties where we worked. By 1988, the percentage of Blacks registered to vote had increased to 77.1 percent, a higher percentage than whites by 2 percent. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, there were only 72 elected African-American office-holders in the South. By 1976, that number had increased to 1,944 men and women of color. – Jeff Schwartz
The wheels of justice do indeed turn slowly…but, my god, look how far we have come (and, yes, look how far we have yet to go).
With the Supreme Court’s decision to hit the Voting Right’s Act where it hurts, the doors have been opened for racist shenanigans.
I’d like to believe we have come too far to worry about seeing anything as morally bankrupt as the Literacy tests of days past…but sometimes I wonder.
Put the heat on your Senators and Representatives…push them to rewrite and pass new guidelines for enforcing the existing Voting Right’s Act. Or, perhaps, it is time we push for a whole and complete new one. I like Pelosi’s call for naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Lastly, I have to admit….according to 1964 Louisiana, I am NOT smarter than a 5th grader.
If I were Black, I’d not have been allowed to exercise my right to vote.
How ’bout you? Would you have been allowed to vote?