What Is a Literacy Test?

Literacy Tests, Race, and Immigration in U.S. History

Woman teaching another woman at Citizenship School
Teachers at "citizenship schools" taught applicants what to expect when they applied to register to vote. Civil Rights Movement Veterans

A literacy test measures a person’s proficiency in reading and writing. Beginning in the 19th century, literacy tests were used in the voter registration process in southern states of the U.S. with the intent to disenfranchise Black voters. In 1917, with the passing of the Immigration Act, literacy tests were also included in the U.S. immigration process, and they are still used today. Historically, literacy tests have served to legitimize racial and ethnic marginalization in the U.S.

History of Reconstruction and Jim Crow Era

Literacy tests were introduced into the voting process in the South with the Jim Crow laws. These were state and local laws and statutes enacted by Southern and border states in the late 1870s to deny Black Americans the right to vote in the South following Reconstruction (1865–1877). They were designed to keep White and Black people segregated, to disenfranchise Black voters, and to keep Black people subjugated, undermining the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution.

Despite the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, granting citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States," which included formerly enslaved people, and the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which specifically gave Black Americans the right to vote, Southern and border states continued to find ways to keep racial minorities from voting. They used electoral fraud and violence to intimidate Black American voters and created Jim Crow laws to promote racial segregation. During the 20 years following Reconstruction, Black Americans lost many of the legal rights that had been gained during Reconstruction.

With the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively undermined the protection of Black Americans by providing legitimacy to Jim Crow laws. In this case, the Supreme Court maintained that public facilities for Black and White people could be “separate but equal.” Following this decision, it soon became the law throughout the South that public facilities had to be separate.

Many of the changes made during Reconstruction proved to be short-lived, with the Supreme Court continuing to uphold racial discrimination and segregation in its decisions, thus giving southern states free rein to impose literacy tests and all manner of voting restrictions on prospective voters, discriminating against Black voters. But racism was not just recurring in the South. Although Jim Crow Laws were a Southern phenomenon, the sentiment behind them was a national one. There was a resurgence of racism in the North as well and a belief among White people across the country, and internationally, that Reconstruction was a mistake.

Literacy Tests and Voting Rights

Some states, such as Connecticut, used literacy tests in the mid-1800s to keep Irish immigrants from voting, but Southern states didn’t use literacy tests until after Reconstruction in 1890. Sanctioned by the federal government, these tests were used well into the 1960s. They were given ostensibly to test the voters' ability to read and write, but in reality they were designed to discriminate against Black American and sometimes poor White voters. Since, at that time, 40% to 60% of Black people were illiterate, compared to 8% to 18% of White people, these tests had a large differential racial impact.

Southern states also imposed other standards, all of which were arbitrarily set by the test administrator. Favored were those who owned property, or had grandfathers who had been able to vote (“grandfather clause”); people with “good character,” and those who paid poll taxes. Because of these impossible standards, of the 130,334 registered Black voters in Louisiana in 1896, only 1% could pass the state's new rules eight years later. Even in areas where the Black population was substantially greater, these standards kept the White voting population in the majority.

The administration of literacy tests was unfair and discriminatory. If the administrator wanted a person to pass, they could ask an easy question—for example, "Who is the president of the United States?” While the same official could require a much higher standard of a Black person, even requiring that they answer every question correctly. It was up to the test administrator whether the prospective voter passed or failed, and even if a Black man was well-educated, he would most likely fail, because the test was created with failure as a goal. Even if a potential Black voter knew all the answers to the questions, the official administering the test could still fail him.

Literacy tests were not declared unconstitutional in the South until 95 years after the 15th Amendment was ratified, by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Five years later, in 1970, Congress abolished literacy tests and discriminatory voting practices nationwide, and as a result, the number of registered Black American voters increased dramatically.

Actual Literacy Tests

In 2014 a group of Harvard University students was asked to take the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test to raise awareness about voting discrimination. The test is similar to those given in other Southern states since Reconstruction to potential voters who could not prove they had a fifth-grade education. In order to be able to vote, a person had to pass all 30 questions in 10 minutes. All of the students failed under those conditions because the test was meant to be failed. The questions have nothing at all to do with the U.S. Constitution and are completely nonsensical.

Literacy Tests and Immigration

In the late 19th century, many people wanted to restrict the influx of immigrants to the U.S. due to increased problems of urbanization and industrialization such as crowding, lack of housing and jobs, and urban squalor. It was during this time that the idea of using literacy tests to control the number of immigrants able to enter the United States, particularly those from southern and eastern Europe, was formed. However, it took those who advocated for this approach many years to try to convince lawmakers and others that immigrants were the “cause” of many of America’s social and economic maladies. Finally, in 1917, Congress passed the Immigration Act, also known as the Literacy Act (and Asiatic Barred Zone Act), which included a literacy test that is still a requirement for becoming a U.S. citizen today.

The Immigration Act demanded that those who were over the age of 16 and could read some language must read 30–40 words to show they were capable of reading. Those who were entering the U.S. to avoid religious persecution from their country of origin did not have to pass this test. The literacy test that is part of the Immigration Act of 1917 included only a few languages available to immigrants. This meant that if their native language was not included, they could not prove they were literate and were denied entry.

Beginning in 1950, immigrants could legally only take the literacy test in English, further limiting those who could gain entry to the United States. Besides demonstrating the ability to read, write, and speak English, immigrants also have to display knowledge of U.S. history, government, and civics.

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. What Was Jim Crow.” Ferris State University, ferris.edu.

  2. A Brief History of Jim Crow.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, crf-usa.org.

  3. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Tools and Activities: PBS.” thirteen.org.

  4. Take The Near Impossible Literacy Test Louisiana Used to Suppress the Black Vote (1964).” Open Culture, 23 July 2014.

  5. Miller, Carl L. and Ojogho, Dennis O. “A Sacred Right Remains Threatened.” Opinion | The Harvard Crimson, thecrimson.com. 26 Jan. 2015.

  6. Powell, John. Encyclopedia of North American Immigration. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.

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Marder, Lisa. "What Is a Literacy Test?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/literacy-test-definition-4137422. Marder, Lisa. (2021, December 6). What Is a Literacy Test? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/literacy-test-definition-4137422 Marder, Lisa. "What Is a Literacy Test?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/literacy-test-definition-4137422 (accessed June 8, 2023).