The Impossible Quiz
A reminder of how far the South has come on voting rights.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia speaks with considerable authority on the question of voting rights, for he still bears the scars of his March 1965 beating at the hands of a racist mob in Selma, Alabama. Not surprisingly, Mr. Lewis was unhappy last week when the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act establishing a formula that kept voting practices in certain jurisdictions, including most of the Deep South, under strict federal supervision.
Mr. Lewis claimed on MSNBC that in recent years "there's been a systematic, deliberate attempt to take us back to another period," by which he meant the Jim Crow South. He observed that the Justices who decided the case "never had to pass a so-called literacy test." That's probably true, since Justice Clarence Thomas wasn't old enough to vote until 1969.
For a little historical perspective, the liberal online magazine Slate last week reproduced a transcript of a Louisiana "literacy" test, believed to date from 1964, which it obtained from the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website (http://www.crmvet.org). The test is a baffling series of 30 brainteasers that was to be administered to anyone who could not "prove a fifth grade education." You can see the original at http://on.wsj.com/1964orig. READER SHOULD CHECK THIS OUT
Some of the questions were confusingly worded: "Circle the first, first letter of the alphabet in this line." (We guess that's the "a" in "alphabet.") Others tried to overload the test-taker with instructions: "Place a cross over the tenth letter in this line, a line under the first space in this sentence, and circle the last the in the second line of this sentence." And some tested not reading but math: Would-be voters had to complete the sequence "2 4 8 16 __" and to "draw five circles that have one common interlocking part."
To be permitted to vote, a citizen had to answer every question correctly within 10 minutes—an average of 20 seconds per question. That would be a tall order even for somebody with a college education.
The test powerfully illustrates how determined white Southern Democrats were to keep blacks from voting, and why the Voting Rights Act's extraordinary measures were necessary in 1965. Louisiana was among the states subjected to federal "preclearance" until last week.
But today no one is proposing to reinstitute literacy tests, which are banned by a section of the Voting Rights Act that was unaffected by last week's decision. Louisiana has an Indian-American Governor, an African-American Member of Congress and a 32-member Legislative Black Caucus in Baton Rouge. Without meaning to, Slate has offered a powerful illustration of how far we have left that "earlier period" behind—and how little reason there is to fear its return.