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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 Black man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites, signed Mr. Solid South."
A literacy test, in the context of United States political history, refers to the government practice of testing the literacy of potential citizens at the federal level, and potential voters at the state level. The federal government first employed literacy tests as part of the immigration process in 1917. Southern state legislatures employed literacy tests as part of the voter registration process as early as the late 19th century.
Literacy tests, along with poll taxes and extra-legal intimidation, were used to deny suffrage to African-Americans. The first formal voter literacy tests were introduced in 1890. Whites were exempted from the literacy test if they could meet alternate requirements (the grandfather clause) that, in practice, excluded blacks. These included demonstrating political competence in person or showing descent from someone who was eligible to vote before 1867 (the post-Civil War civil rights constitutional amendments 13, 14, and 15 were enacted in 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively). Grandfather clauses were ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Guinn v. United States (1915). Nevertheless, literacy tests continued to be used to disenfranchise blacks. The tests were usually administered orally by white local officials, who had complete discretion over who passed and who failed. Examples of questions asked of Blacks in Alabama included: naming all sixty-seven county judges in the state, naming the date on which Oklahoma was admitted to the Union, and declaring how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.
Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment would have penalized states which excluded adult males from voting (whether by literacy tests or by any other means) by proportionately reducing their representation in Congress, but this provision was never enforced. In 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. Lassiter v. Northampton Election Board (1959). 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 not completed six years of formal education. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests in all states or political subdivisions in which less than 50 percent of voting-age residents were registered as of November 1, 1964, or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the legislation and restricted the use of literacy tests for non-English-speaking citizens, Katzenbach v. Morgan. Since the passage of this legislation, black registration in the South has increased substantially.
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