According to the Michigan-based Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, this is an excerpt of the text of the 1965 Alabama Literacy Test:

  1. If it were proposed to join Alabama and Mississippi to form one state, what groups would have to vote approval in order for this to be done?________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________

  2. The Vice President presides over ____________________________________________.

  3. The Constitution limits the size of the District of Columbia to ____________________ ______________________________________________________________________.

I have found several Jim-Crow-era literacy tests like this, but I am skeptical because none show the original documents to be read, and they have ridiculously difficult questions.

Is this a genuine example of a literacy test that was officially used to determine voter eligibility?

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    Welcome to Skeptics! – Oddthinking Mar 19 '15 at 22:59
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    Re "ridiculously difficult questions", I read through the linked test, and it doesn't seem to be any more difficult than say a high school test in an American history/government class. – jamesqf Mar 20 '15 at 18:47
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    For another test used in bad faith to exclude people, see the White Australia Dictation test. – Andrew Grimm Mar 21 '15 at 1:25
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    At this moment this question plus the answers as a whole definietely do not emphasize quite enough how the questions were accompanied by excerpts from Constitution - so indeed literacy and reading comprehension was tested here, not prior knowledge. (Personally I know next to nothing about this period of American history, but I don't get how even a hard literacy test can be considered racist, if it's indeed a literacy test and is applied to all eligible votes equally... at least long term, because short-term you could talk about disenfranchised populations). – Szymon Dec 27 '20 at 19:54
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    @Szymon When it is designed to prevent certain groups of people people from voting and it was not uniformly required of all voters. – Joe W Mar 2 at 18:23

This will be answered through an argument of authority. While, I do not expect this community to accept the answer, I'm sure it will help.

According to the University of Oklahoma, it is true. Professor John.J.Chiodo regave the quiz in 1996 where it had this objective:

Students take and score the 68 items of the 1965 Alabama Literacy Test to experience in a small way the frustration and the injustice this kind of test produced (45 minutes).

As you see in the snapshot it has the same answer keys you had for the first quiz:

enter image description here

Also, PBS and member stations, America’s largest classroom and the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world, posted this quiz online called The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Tools and Activities | PBS, with the same question of the original quiz as you posted.

enter image description here

The American Bar Association reposted the test: enter image description here

The Quiz is also found in a book called Toward a Literacy of Promise: Joining the African-American Struggle:

enter image description here

The quiz is found on hundreds of university archives, for example, a version is found on Appstate.edu and the same question is found on uncw.edu too.


Another skeptis.se member, ChrisW, pointed out, that the exam you mentioned might be one of the many exams that you are questioning, and suggested another similar exam with same level difficulty (if not worse), the test's name is Louisiana Literacy Test, also mentioned by ferris.edu. Snapshot: enter image description here

The good news about this exam is state of tennessee itself posted a version of it! Here is the link (notice blackhistory):


http://www.tn.gov/ reported also:

Another insidious method of eliminating African American votes was the use of literacy tests. Surviving copies of these tests indicate that they were designed to cause the test taker to fail. One commonly used test asked the voter to explain complex passages from the United States Constitution; another test asked confusing, ambiguous questions that could be interpreted in a number of ways, so that every answer could be judged as wrong; some tests were so long, no one could finish them in the allotted time. Some voting places offered “help” – a Tennessee law made it possible for illiterate voters to obtain help marking their ballots . . . if they had voted in 1857! Thus black voters were not permitted to receive help, while illiterate white voters were protected, at least for a while.

Also giving many test samples:

"Literacy & Voter test examples" - Voter registration for Alabama
- [VR ALA]
- Voter tests for Alabama
- [1], [2], [3], [4].
- Voter registration for Mississippi [VRMiss].
- Louisiana Literacy Test
- [LALiteracyTest].


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    Per the original version of the question, the OP didn't trust the reference because it's a transcript and not a photocopy ("I am skeptical because none show the original documents"); so maybe this or this might help as they look more like photocopies. See also Some have questioned the authenticity of this particular exam from the same source. – ChrisW Mar 20 '15 at 13:28
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    This really isn't a full answer to the question; the OP was asking whether you can actually demonstrate that these literacy tests are real when there would be (totally agreeable!) political motives to make up these tests in order to discredit segregationists. The Ferris State Uni article doesn't give any examples where they can be authenticated so I guess your answer is no. – J. LS Mar 28 '15 at 11:50

It is partially genuine.

In an actual Alabama voter registration application, there were 2 sets of four questions. The first set of four (technically Part III, instruction B) had to be answered from the person's own knowledge. In the second part (Part III, instruction C) four excerpts from the constitution were printed, and then four related questions would be asked.

The excerpts and corresponding questions were created by the Alabama Supreme Court. The court created 100 sets of 8 questions, referred to as "inserts", so that people wouldn't know ahead of time what questions would be asked. See Hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Improvements in Judicial Machinery October 13, 1965, Part I starting at page 750 and in much more detail with all 100 versions of the test see the complaint in US v. Baggett.

Quoting the complaint:

On August 26, 1964, the Supreme Court of Alabama ordered the county boards of registrars throughout Alabama to use a revised form of Insert Part III. According to this order, this revision was necessary because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The revised Insert Part III contains different tests from those which had previously been used. These tests consist of eight questions; four testing the applicant's knowledge of government; four testing the applicant's comprehension and reasoning ability based on printed excerpts from the United States Constitution; and a dictation test administered by the registrar from one or more of the excerpts of the United States Constitution. There are 100 different forms of these tests. A total of 399 different questions on government and 139 different excerpts from substantially all of the Constitution are used in making up these tests. A copy of the 100 different forms of these tests is attached as Attachment D and is incorporated herein.

The 68 question test was arranged in 1965, drawing from the 399 real Alabama Supreme Court questions, and published in the newsletter The Dixon Line and elsewhere, so it has been circulating in a form without the excerpts and with 68 rather than just 2 sets of 4 questions since 1965.

(Of the 68 questions in the OP test, questions 1, 2, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 18, 23, 24, 25, 26, 31, 32, 37, 38, 43, 44, 45, 50, 51, 59, 60 were asked purely based upon knowledge, question 16 was asked on one insert purely of knowledge and on another insert with an excerpt containing the answer, and the remaining 44 questions were asked with accompanying excerpts containing the answers.)

See also the 1982 Southern Exposure where a professor explains:

Recently I gave seven students a compilation of 68 questions from the Alabama 1964 - 1965 voter registration tests . The actual examinations had only four factual knowledge and four constitutional interpretation questions apiece - but I frankly wanted to overwhelm my students.

As explained in the congressional record:

In Alabama's tests- used since August 1964, answers to four of the eight questions are in printed material on the test sheet

So for this part of the test, first you would read excerpts:


Part 1. In case of the removal of the president from office, or of his death, resignation or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President, and the Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice-President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
Part 2. In all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party, the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction
Part 3. In all the other cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make.
Part 4. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction

Then there were 4 questions:

(After applicant has read, not aloud, the foregoing excerpts from the Constitution, he will answer the following questions in writing and without assistance:)

  1. In case the president is unable to perform the duties of his office, who assumes them?______________________
  2. "Involuntary servitude" is permitted in the United States upon conviction of a crime. (True or False)___________
  3. If a state is a party to a case, the Constitution provides that original jurisdiction shall be in_________________
  4. Congress passes laws regulating cases which are included in those over which the United States Supreme Court has____________________________ jurisdiction.

I hereby certify that I have received no assistance in the completion of this citizenship and literacy test, that I was allowed the time I desired to complete it, and that I waive any right existing to demand a copy of same. (If for any reason the applicant does not wish to sign this, he must discuss the matter with the board of registrars.) Signed:___________________________________________ (Applicant)

Source: Proceedings of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, Eighty-Ninth Congress, First Session on S. 1564, March 23-April 5, 1965 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1965) p. 762.

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    How many questions would have been picked form the pool of 68 for a given test ? And what score was necessary to pass the test ? – Evargalo May 2 '18 at 13:51
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    Good answer. If the test comes with a passage which answers all the questions then that makes a huge difference to the difficulty of the questions. – DJClayworth Mar 2 at 18:10
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    @Evargalo The pool was actually more than the 68. One reference says 399. But a given test that a person would get would have 4 questions that they need to answered from the applicant's own knowledge, and 4 questions to answer based on excerpts. I revised the answer and added better references. Hopefully more clear now. – DavePhD Mar 3 at 0:20
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    @DavePhD Thank you. :) So the three questions OP references were among ones from "constituton interpretation" part. I do understand that literacy checks could in many places effectively favor white voters because act of abolishing slavery does not result in equal level of education overnight, but I don't think we should sugarcoat anything. People should just avoid jumping to conclusions themselves, instead of being pampered and treated like children. – Szymon Mar 5 at 3:17
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    @Szymon another factor was that registration to vote was for life, so all the people already registered (almost all of whom were white) avoided having to take such a test. – DavePhD Mar 5 at 3:53

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