The impossible literacy test

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Titeana Oring



Paying tribute to the many contributions African-Americans have made for this country and bringing awareness to the ongoing hardships that they face in America should not just happen during Black History Month.

The bravery and force of millions of African-Americans often goes unknown but has strengthened our nation.  Countless numbers of African-Americans have created a platform for social change for minorities in America and around the world, but we still have a long way to go. One of the rights we, in general, overlook that many people fought for more than 55 years ago is the right to vote.

People of color, poor whites, and women had to jump through loops, overcome barriers and go through trials and tribulations to do something that they already had the right to do.  One example of an impediment to voting was the distribution of the literacy test. This was meant to prove the voter had at least a fifth grade education, but was unfortunately geared to cause African-Americans and poor whites to fail.

Being part of the Radford University’s student body and as an intern with Virginia Organizing, I thought it was important for Radford University students and staff alike, to learn and experience the hardships that people who fought for civil rights had to overcome. So I decided to host an event called “The Impossible Literacy Test.”

“The Impossible Literacy Test” event is an interactive opportunity to college students that allow them to understand firsthand the barriers people of color and some poor white had to go through to exercise their right to vote. The Civil Rights Movement Veterans have been collecting historical documents pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement—including distributed literacy test in the south.

A few samples of actually literacy test used in the 1960s have been released to the public. The one that will be used during this event is the Louisiana Voter Literacy Test of 1964. Literacy Test was supposed to prove the voter had at least a fifth grade education, but was geared for African-Americans to fail.  The ultimate goal was to systematically keep this population oppressed and hopeless.

This specific test, the Louisiana Voter Literacy Test of 1964, was utterly irreverent in proving basic education. It seemed more like a mind-bending trivia test then a basic fifth grade level exam. If you don’t believe me I have provided two sample questions from the actually test below:

Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence, 29.

Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in the same line, but capitalize the fifth word that you write.

Now try to answer 28 other questions similar to the two above in a 10-minute time frame.  It’s nearly impossible to complete and was a guaranteed fail.

“The Impossible Literacy Test” event allowed RU students to openly discuss, reflect on the past, present, and future of institutional racism and oppression, and to strategize towards progression of social justice.

The students who participated thought the initial purpose of the event was to just take a literacy test. However, I also gave them a historical background on the events leading up to the passing of the Voting Rights of 1965.

I let them go through the process of trying to vote in the South during the Jim Crow era as an African-American. We discussed the possible relation between the literacy tests of the 1960s to the new voter ID law.  The other topics that unfolded included having a unified voting process, immigration rights, institutional racism, intersectionality and LGBTQ rights.