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1965 Alabama Literacy Test

Q: Can you verify that the link on your website is the actual 1965 Alabama literacy test? I'm asking because I found other documents online that purport to be the '65 Alabama literacy test, and they have different questions. Also, was the test ever given to potential voters?

~Michael R. 
Washington D.C.

1965 Alabama Literacy test image

A: Literacy tests for voting in Alabama were created through the 1901 Alabama Constitution, which replaced the 1875 state Constitution. The update was “largely if not principally… [to] eliminate Negro voters.” The effects were immediate and drastic. In 1900, 100,000 African Americans were enrolled as voters in Alabama, but by 1908, only 3,742 were registered to vote. The Alabama Supreme Court adjusted the administration of the literacy test by introducing multiple versions with the intention of rendering it more challenging for African American voters to prepare adequately. From 1964 onwards, there were a total of 100 different versions of the test. The Court further refined the test on three occasions between 1964 and 1965 (Official Reports of the Supreme Court pp 437-441).

The 1965 Alabama literacy test received much attention. Hundreds of newspapers wrote about the unfairness of the test, and many civil rights group members, white and black, took the test and demonstrated that it was an unfair test.  In one instance, 80 college students from Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania took the test, and all failed. The test became the topic of Voting Rights hearings by the United States Senate in 1965, and of continued debate among the public (Lebanon Daily News, 1965).

Proponents of the test argued that the content was nothing out of the ordinary. For instance, Frank Mizell, representing the registrars of Alabama, argued that the test was given to all voters of Alabama and that the answers to the Constitution questions were “provided in printed sections of the Constitution immediately preceding the question” (Senate hearings p. 733). Governor George Wallace contended that some of the questions on the test were just general knowledge of the government, and the ones related to the Constitution were reading comprehension questions (The Times-Mail, 1965). However, grandfather clause exemptions were given to citizens who had voted before, and those exemptions were primarily given to white voters.

In March 1965, the Lancaster New Era published the questions and answers to a version of the 1965 Alabama literacy test, the same version the Jim Crow Museum has posted on its website. The source says that "a federal court recently ordered that the questions no longer be used as part of a ‘literacy’ test in Selma, ALA, but similar questions are still used in many parts of the South to control voting registration." The final version of the Alabama test was halted in early 1965. However, the indication is that this version was administered in 1964 and early 1965 (Lancaster New Era, 1965). 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy test requirements in Alabama and the rest of the country.

Franklin Hughes
Jim Crow Museum


Burke, W. L., & Landsberg, B. K. (2008). Free at last to Vote: The Alabama Origins of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Journal of Southern History, 74(4), 1019. discusses in detail the legal battle over literacy tests in Alabama.

Chula Vista Star-News 25 Mar 1965, page Page 1. SC Students ‘illiterate’ In Alabama Vote Test 

Exclusion from Primaries and Literacy Tests. (n.d.). LII / Legal Information Institute. 

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery. (2023). 1965 Alabama Literacy Test 

The Lancaster New Era 16 Mar 1965, page 11. Here Are The Questions Asked In The Alabama Literacy Test. 

Lebanon Daily News 30 Sep 1965, Page 36. Too Difficult 

Official Reports of the Supreme Court. (2008). United States: Supreme Court. Pages 437-441 

The Times-Mail 19 May 1965, page 10. (n.d.). Much Misconception About Alabama Literacy Test for Voters 

Voting Rights: Hearings Before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Eighty-Ninth Congress, First Session, on Mar. 23-25, 29-31, Apr. 1, 2, 5, 1965. (1965). United States: U.S. Government Printing Office.