In school you’re taught that, even after the 15th amendment, blacks were kept from voting by crooked literacy tests, which they failed in heaps. Teachers invariably end these social studies lessons by saying, “Those tests were so hard, even you couldn’t pass them!” No shit, Mrs. Anderson — you’re talking to a bunch of nine-year-olds.
Even after taking institutionalized racism into account, this always seemed like some affirmative action type rewriting of history. I mean, isn’t it just as likely that after a couple hundred years of chattel slavery and the non-existence of schools catering to them, a sizable amount of black people simply failed the test on their own merits?
To figure out if literacy tests were in fact crooked, I dug up a bunch of questions from exams used in Alabama in the ’50s and gave them to a white law student and a black accounting student.
Left: Olek, 22, white guy; Right: Josh, 21, brother
ARV: 1. Name the attorney general of the United States.
No, from the 1950s.
O: You know, I think I’m going to pass on that one.
JOSH: Dude, I don’t know.
Answer: Nicholas Katzenbach.
2. If a person charged with treason denies his guilt, how many persons must testify against him before he can be convicted?
O: I’m going to say two.
J: I’ll say three.
3. If a bill is passed by Congress and the President refuses to sign it and does not send it back to Congress in session within the specified period of time, is the bill defeated or does it become law?
O: Then it goes into law.
Answer: It becomes law unless Congress adjourns before the expiration of 10 days.
4. True or false: Each county in Alabama may decide by vote whether or not it will have legalized sale of alcoholic beverages.
O: I’m going to say true.
5. If the United States wishes to purchase land for an arsenal and have exclusive legislative authority over it, consent is required from …
O: I’m going to say their City Comptroller.
J: I want to say Secretary of Defense.
6. Name one area of authority over state militia reserved exclusively to the states.
O: Authority over … uh … black people.
J: Don’t know.
Answer: The appointment of officers.
7. Name one person by name or title who is part of the judicial branch of government in Alabama.
O: Albert Grossman.
I’m going to have to look that up because I only have one answer. [He was wrong.]
J: Come on! I don’t know.
Answer: Chief Justice Livingston.
8. In what year did the Congress gain the right to prohibit the migration of persons to the states?
O: Like 19 … 28.
9. True or false: Women may now serve on juries in Alabama State courts.
O: Bullshit. Wait. No. Maybe? The ’50s? They got the right to vote … I’m going to say yes.
10. The only legal tender which may be authorized by states for payment of debts is …
O: Shit, I don’t know.
J: United States currency.
Answer: U.S. Currency.
After the scores were tallied, both these kids failed. Terribly. Olek earned a dismal 40 percent and Joshua a slightly worse 30 percent, demonstrating that though these tests might be slightly racist, they are mostly just really, really fucking hard. Basically, if you had to take this test, you were fucked regardless of how much education you had. By way of the grandfather clause, it was mostly only blacks who had to take the exam to prove their “voting competency,” so yeah, I guess literacy tests were a crafty means of disenfranchising blacks. Touche, racists.
Originally published on Street Carnage.