Alabama used to have literacy tests for voting, along with poll taxes, and those were used to keep blacks and poor whites from exercising any influence over elections. The first time we interviewed Rep. Artur Davis, all the way back in August of 2008, he spoke of his mother's generation, Joe Reed's generation, and why it is understandably difficult for that generation -- who grew up unable to sit at the front of the bus, unable to use the same bathroom as white people, subject to literacy tests and poll taxes -- why it is difficult for people who were subjected to those circumstances to believe it is possible to elect a black president or a black governor. Remember, this was in August of 2008, almost 3 months before Obama's election.
In the process, Davis told a wonderful story of civil rights attorney Fred Gray's experience with a literacy test. He failed it, even though he answered every question correctly. The authorities -- concerned only with preserving the status quo -- absolutely could and did fail people who aced the test, the same way they passed people who didn't answer correctly, as long as their skin color passed the test.
Here's more about those literacy tests Tancredo and the Tea Bag crowd want to bring back.
In the rural counties where most folk lived, you had to go down to the courthouse to register. The Registrars Office was only open two or three days each month for a couple of hours, usually in the morning or afternoon. You had to take off work — with or without your employer's permission — to register. And if a white employer gave such permission, or failed to fire Black who tried to vote, he could be driven out of business by economic retaliation from the Citizens Council.
On the occasional registration day, the county Sheriff and his deputies made it their business to hang around the courthouse to discourage "undesirables" from trying to register. This meant that Black women and men had to run a gauntlet of intimidation, insults, threats, and sometimes arrest on phony charges, just to get to the Registration Office. Once in the Registrars Office they faced hatred, harassment, and humiliation from clerks and officials.
The Alabama Application Form and oaths you had to take were four pages long. It was designed to intimidate and threaten. You had to swear that your answers to every single question were true under penalty of perjury. And you knew that the information you entered on the form would be passed on to the Citizens Council and KKK.
Many counties used what they called the "voucher system." This meant that you had to have someone who was already a registered voter "vouch" for you — under oath and penalty of perjury — that you met the residence qualification to vote. In some counties this "supporting witness" had to accompany you to the registrars office, in others they were interviewed elsewhere. Some counties limited the number of new applicants a registered voter could vouch for in a given year to two or three. Since no white voter would dare vouch for a Black applicant, in counties where only a handful of African-Americans were already registered only a few more each year could be added to the rolls. And in counties were no African-Americans were registered, none ever could because they had no one to vouch for them.
In addition to completing the application and swearing the oaths, you had to pass the actual "Literacy Test" itself. Because the Freedom Movement was running "Citizenship Schools" to help people learn how to fill out the forms and pass the test, Alabama changed the test 4 times in less than two years (1964-1965). At the time of the Selma Voting Rights campaign there were actually 100 different tests in use across the state. In theory, each applicant was supposed to be given one at random from a big loose-leaf binder. In real life, some individual tests were easier than others and the registrar made sure that Black applicants got the hardest ones.
The image below shows one of the literacy tests used in Alabama back in those bad old days. Could you pass it? What about your neighbors?