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Darryl Paulson: Black Voter Discrimination: The Literacy Test and Grandfather Clause

Fourth in a series.

There is universal agreement among the scholars of Southern politics that the literacy test was the primary obstacle confronting blacks who desired to vote.  Supposedly, all voters, black and white, had to pass a literacy test before earning the right to vote.

Although equally applied to blacks and whites in theory, in practice the literacy test was one of the most discriminatory barriers in the South.

Blacks had been denied an education for generations and, even when the South provided education, it was “separate and unequal.”  Black schools had inferior facilities, curriculum and faculty, and were allocated less money per pupil than white schools.

The major burden blacks confronted when taking the test was the discretion of election officials to determine if you gave the correct answer.  White voters seldom failed; black voters seldom passed.

In 1915, the Florida Legislature enacted a literacy test along with a companion grandfather clause.  The clause, common throughout the South, declared that any person who had a relative who voted prior to a certain date did not have to take the test.

According to the proposed Florida law, if you had a relative who was eligible to vote on Jan. 1, 1867, you were exempt from taking the test.  Since no black Floridian was voting prior to that date, all of them had to pass the test in order to vote.

Blacks were frequently asked more technical and legal questions than whites.  When one black applicant was asked what “habeas corpus” meant, he responded:  “Habeas corpus means this black man ain’t gonna register today.”

Even after courts and federal laws eliminated the white primary, poll tax and grandfather clause, the literacy test could always be counted on to limit black political participation.  By the mid-1960s, less than one out of four blacks were voting because they failed the test.  In Mississippi, only 7 percent of blacks were registered to vote by 1964.

Several attempts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw the literacy test failed.  Finally, the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act limited the use of the tests in Southern states.  Further extensions of the Voting Rights Act in later years would ultimately prohibit the use of such tests anywhere in America.

For almost a century, Florida had been extraordinarily successful in disenfranchising black voters.  As Southern historian J. Morgan Kouser observed, “the registration, poll tax, eight-box, and secret ballot simply exterminated the opposition” in Florida elections.

Turnout among black males in 1888, before the barriers went into effect, was 62 percent.  Just four years later, after the barriers were enacted, black male turnout in Florida dropped to 11 percent.  In four short years, as Kouser noted, the Florida black voter became virtually extinct.

Next: Vote dilution.

Written By

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.

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