From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A literacy test, in the context of United States political history, refers to the government practice of testing the literacy of potential citizens at the federal level, and potential voters at the state level. The federal government first employed literacy tests as part of the immigration process in 1917. Southern state legislatures employed literacy tests as part of the voter registration process as early as the late nineteenth century.
As used by the states, the literacy test gained infamy as a means for denying suffrage to African-Americans. Adopted by a number of southern states, the literacy test was applied in a patently unfair manner, as it was used to disfranchise many literate blacks while allowing many illiterate whites to vote. This was accomplished by making the test inordinately difficult and allowing test-givers to choose who had to take the test and who did not. The literacy test, combined with other discriminatory requirements, effectively disfranchised most African-Americans in the south from the 1890s until the 1960s.
Southern states abandoned the literacy test only when forced to do so by federal legislation in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided that literacy tests used as a qualification for voting in federal elections be administered wholly in writing and only to persons who had not completed six years of formal education. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests in all states or political subdivisions in which less than 50 percent of voting-age residents were registered as of 1 November 1964 or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the legislation and restricted the use of literacy tests for non-English-speaking citizens. Since the passage of this legislation, black registration in the South has increased dramatically.