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Literacy Tests: Lassiter

Louise Lassiter

Louise Lassiter could not have suspected, back on May 5, 1956, when she walked into the W.H. Taylor general store, that her actions would lead to a U.S. Supreme Court case. The store owner, Helen H. Taylor, was also the registrar for Northhampton County, North Carolina, and the store doubled as the local registrar office. Taylor administered the state literacy test to Lassiter, who read out loud a section of text placed before her. Lassiter allegedly mispronounced a few words, and so Taylor deemed her illiterate, and thus unable to register to vote.

Local attorney James R. Walker, Jr. represented Lassiter in her struggle to register. In March, 1957, Walker and co-counsels filed Louise Lassiter v. Northhampton County Board of Education in the federal district court (Federal courts were more open to civil rights cases.) In response, the North Carolina General Assembly revised the registration procedures, included the requirement that literacy be proved "to the satisfaction" of the registrars. The three judge federal panel found that the original literacy test did violate the 14th and 15th Amendments, but directed Lassiter to exhaust the new state level remedies.

Louise Lassiter went back to register, but this time she refused to take the literacy test. She and her lawyers exhausted state level remedies, and eventually went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled against her. The next stop was the U.S. Supreme Court.

Walker believed that he could get a ruling that literacy tests themselves were unconstitutional. He requested financial assistance from the NAACP to help finance the litigation in this case. They turned him down, because they believed that Lassiter would lose, and the ruling would hurt the voting rights effort.

Walker raised the money on his own with the help of the local community. Unfortunately, he did lose at the Supreme Court. However, Walker continued to file actions based on the manner in which the tests were administered.

[On July 28, 2010, Rep. Butterfield introduced a bill to name the post office branch in Seaboard after Ms. Lassiter. It died in committee. ]

See Law and Society in the South: A History of North Carolina Court Cases, by John W. Wertheimer, The University Press of Kentucky, 2009

North Carolina Code of 1927

Art. 6. Registration of Voters

Sec. 5939. Voter must be able to read and write; exceptions.--Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the constitution in the English language, and shall show to the satisfaction of the registrar his ability to read and write any such section when he applies for registration, And before he is registered: Provided, however, that no male person who was, on January first, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven, or at anytime prior thereto, entitled to vote under the laws of any state in the United States where he then resided, and no lineal descendant of such person, shall be denied the right to register and vote at any election in this state by reason of his failure to possess the educational qualification aforesaid: Provided, that said elector shall have registered prior to December 1st, 1908, in accordance with article six, section four, of the constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereto. (Rev.. s. 4318; 1901, c. 89, s. 12; 127. c. 260, s. 3.)

Editor's Note.--In lieu of the last proviso now appearing at the end of this section, this section prior to its amendment by the Laws of 1927 contained a proviso that the voter should show to the registrar that he or his ancestor was entitled to vote prior to January 1, 1867, in any state in the United States as provided by Art. 6, sec. 4 of the Constitution, and that if such voter is otherwise qualified he shall be registered regardless of whether or not he could  read or write.



S. B. 210 CHAPTER 287

The General Assembly of North Carolina do enact:
Section 1. Article 6, Chapter 163 of the General Statutes is hereby amended by rewriting G. S. 163-28, to read as follows:
"Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any Section of the Constitution of North Carolina in the English language. It shall be the duty of each registrar to administer the provisions of this Section."
Sec. 2. Article 6, Chapter 163 of the General Statutes is further amended by inserting a new Section, G. S. 163-28.1, to read as follows:
"Any person who is denied registration for any reason may appeal the decision of the registrar to the county board of elections of the county in which the precinct is located. Notice of appeal shall be filed with the registrar who denied registration, on the day of denial or by 5:00 P. M. on the day following the day of denial. The notice of appeal shall be in writing, signed by the appealing party, and shall set forth the name, age and address of the appealing party, and shall state the reasons for appeal."
Sec. 3. Article 6, Chapter 163 of the General Statutes is further amended by inserting a new Section, G. S. 163-28.2, to read as follows:
"Every registrar receiving a notice of appeal shall promptly file such notice with the county board of elections, and every person appealing to
the county board of elections shall be entitled to a prompt and fair hearing on the question of such person's right and qualifications to register
as a voter. A majority of the county board of elections shall be a quorum for the purpose of hearing appeals on the question of registration, and
the decision of a majority of the members of the board shall be the decision of the board. All cases on appeal to a county board of elections
shall be heard de novo, and the board is authorized to subpoena witnesses and to compel their attendance and testimony under oath, and is further authorized to subpoena papers and documents relevant to any matter pending before the board. If at the hearing the board shall find that the person appealing from the decision of the registrar is able to read and write any Section of the Constitution of North Carolina in the English
language and if the board further finds that such person meets all other requirements of law for registration as a voter in the precinct to which application was made, the board shall enter an order directing that such person be registered as a voter in the precinct from which the appeal was taken. The county board of elections shall not be authorized to order registration in any precinct other than the one from which an appeal has been taken. Each appealing party shall be notified of the board's decision in his case not later than ten (10) days after the hearing before the board."
Sec. 4. Article 6, Chapter 163 of the General Statutes is further amended by inserting a new Section, G. S. 163-28.3, to read as follows:
"Any person aggrieved by a final order of a county board of elections may at any time within ten (10) days from the date of such order appeal therefrom to the Superior Court of the county in which the board is located. Upon such appeal, the appealing party shall be the plaintiff and the county board of elections shall be the defendant, and the matter shall be heard de novo in the Superior Court in the same manner as other civil actions are tried and disposed of therein. If the decision of the court be that the order of the county board of elections shall be set aside, then the court shall enter its order so providing and adjudging that such person is entitled to be registered as a qualified voter in the precinct
to which application was originally made, and in such case the name of such person shall be entered on the registration books of that precinct. The court shall not be authorized to order the registration of any person in a precinct to which application was not made prior to the proceeding in court. From the judgment of the Superior Court an appeal may be taken to the Supreme Court in the same manner as other appeals are taken from judgments of such court in civil actions."
Sec. 5. All laws and clauses of laws in conflict with this Act are hereby repealed.
Sec. 6. This Act shall be effective upon its ratification.
In the General Assembly read three times and ratified, this the 12th day of April, 1957.