Below are scans of an actual “literacy test” given to black voters by the state of Louisiana in the 1960s. As Slate points out, “There was little room for befuddlement. The test was to be taken in 10 minutes flat, and a single wrong answer meant a failing grade.” Careful readers will note the irony of the typos in this test.
This summer, we revisited a literacy test from the Jim Crow South. Given predominantly to African-Americans living in Louisiana in 1964, the test consisted of 30 ambiguous questions to be answered in 10 minutes. One wrong answer, and the test-taker was denied the right to vote. It was all part of the South’s attempt to impede free and fair elections, and ensure that African-Americans had no access to politics or mechanisms of power.
How hard was the test? You can take it yourself below (see an answer key here) and find out. Just recently, the same literacy test was also administered to Harvard students — students who can, if anything, ace a standardized test — and not one passed. The questions are tricky. But even worse, if push comes to shove, the questions and answers can be interpreted in different ways by officials grading the exam. Just like all the other literacy tests issued in the South at the time, this test was not about testing literacy at all. It was a … devious measure that the State of Louisiana used to disenfranchise people that had the wrong skin tone or belonged to the wrong social class.” After you give it a try, watch scenes from the Harvard experiment and students’ reactions.