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Literacy Tests: Overview


In the 1950s and 1960s, white people did not hide their racism. 1954's Brown V. Board of Education drew a backlash from southern politicians. In 1956, the Southern Manifesto was signed by 101 U.S. Congressmen. Prospects for positive change looked grim.

White officials had erected many legal barriers to prevent African-Americans from voting. The path towards removing those barriers was not a straight line, and it was not reached by common consensus. There were many setbacks. The NAACP did not finance the Lassiter case, because they anticipated a negative result. Politicians and activists disagreed over whether the poll tax should be ended by simple legislation or an actual constitutional amendment.

Main Cases

Lassiter v. Northampton County Bd. of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1959)

United States v. State of Louisiana, 225 F. Supp. 353 (E.D. La. 1963)

Louisiana v. United States, 380 U.S. 145 (1965)

Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966)

Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970)


William W. Van Alstyne, Administration's Anti-Literacy Test Bill: Wholly Constitutional But Wholly Inadequate, 61 Michigan Law Review 805-822 (1963).

This discussion of Senate Bill 2750 addresses Congress’s ability to extend voting rights without resorting to a constitutional amendment. This paper also examines the efficacy of such a law.

During the hearings, the question arose as to what difference S. 2750 would make, since a registrar could still refuse to register an applicant possessing a sixth-grade certificate or equivalent evidence of the state's literacy qualification, and since his refusal might result in lengthy litigation as it does under existing section 1971.11  The answer was that the elimination of variable, subjective means of testing qualifications, and the consequent substitution of objective referents in measuring qualifications, tend to make it harder for registrars covertly to discriminate, easier for applicants to know when they are being treated differently, and easier for the Government to prove its case


Voting Rights: A Case Study of Madison Parish, Louisiana
The University of Chicago Law Review
Vol. 38, No. 4 (Summer, 1971), pp. 726-787

24th Amendment

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.