How Well Do You Know Your Constitution?
Every American should know the basics of our Founding, don’t you agree? The history, and the Constitution itself?
Well, to make sure you know it, let me give you a quick pop quiz.
Here are 12 questions to test your basic knowledge of our Founding history and document. See how you do:
Which of the following is a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights?
_____Public Education _____ Employment ____ Trial by Jury _____Voting
When the Constitution was approved by the original colonies, how many states had to ratify it in order for it to be in effect?
If a person flees from justice into another state, who has authority to ask for his return?
Money is coined by order of: __U.S. Congress _____The President’s Cabinet _____State Legislatures
If the President does not intend to sign a bill, how many days does he have to return it to Congress for reconsideration? __
Name one area of authority over state militia reserved exclusively for states
Name two things which the states are forbidden to do by the U.S. Constitution.
Name two of the purposes of the U.S. Constitution.
Impeachments of U.S. officials are tried by ______________
If a vacancy occurs in the U.S. Senate, the state must hold an election, but meanwhile the place may be filled by a temporary appointment made by _______________
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? __________________
Of the original 13 states, the one with the largest representation in the first Congress was ____________
How’d you do? Feel good about your answers? (I’ll provide them below).
Now, what if I told you that if you got one answer wrong, you failed the test.
And that there was a major punishment for that failure.
Not just a bad grade in my class…but worse.
Not kicked off my subscription list…even worse than that!
Failure means you aren’t allowed to vote in next November’s Presidential election.
Maybe, but also our history.
This was not a pop quiz I wrote. These 12 questions were part of a far longer series of questions a voter in Alabama faced in 1965 when she or he tried to vote. These were all questions on the 1965 Alabama Literacy Test.
I have given this “Quiz” every year to my law school class, and as smart as they have been, none of my students got every question right. So they would not have qualified to vote in Alabama in 1965…that is, if this test had been consistently enforced.
BUT, alas…we know that that was one of the tricks of these “tests.” They were selectively administered and enforced, and “scored” with great discretion—such that Black voters failed far more often than White voters regardless of the answers they provided.
Now, what if I told you that sometimes, literacy tests were also taken as a group. And even if you passed, if someone else failed in your group, you too failed.
That too is our history. Robert Caro opens his incredible book “Master of the Senate” with just such a tragic scene.
Believe it or not, the test above—as easy as it was to fail—is actually one of the more straightforward “literacy tests” from the Jim Crow South.
Class 5 of my Voting Rights Academy addresses these tests, their fate in the courts, and their ultimate demise. Read on to learn that history and law, and you’ll also learn if you would’ve been allowed to vote in 1965 in Alabama (ie. the answers to the quiz).
The Rise of Literacy Tests
(This history is largely drawn from Alexander Keysarr’s The Right to Vote)
Especially after the Civil War, generations of voters—largely freed from property requirements—faced a new and growing variety of literacy “tests” and related devices as they attempted to vote.
The North and West
In the North, such tests gained favor as the population grew (in cities, and via large influxes of immigrants), and the economy changed to become more industrial and less agrarian. Such societal changes upended American politics—as property requirements eased, working class voters became an ever-growing share of the electorate, as did foreign-born Americans and their progeny; machine-style/“Boss Tweed” politics emerged in major cities and clawed power away from the traditional elite; and some of those movements resulted in more “radical” and populist views gaining traction in local and higher-level politics, often a threat to those in power.
Predictably, all of this triggered a backlash, with “literacy tests” emerging as a popular tool to curb what test advocates decried as a broken and risky system:
Such tests, they argued, were part of “good government” reform—assuring that intelligent, well-informed voters with a true stake in local and American governance were the ones driving American political decisions. Those who could pass such tests would vote responsibly and independently, as opposed to those prone to sell their vote, and/or breed dangerous “mob rule.” English-only literacy tests also gained favor as a way to minimize the electoral power of foreign-born populations growing quickly both East and West.
Debates went back and forth for years between parties, politicians and groups of Americans over the propriety and effect of such tests, but over time, they took hold in many places. What emerged in a few states (Connecticut and Massachusetts) in the mid-1800s, grew widespread by the mid-1920s, with 13 states in the North and West imposing literacy tests, including Wyoming (1889), California (1894) and New York (1921). Oregon was the last state to add one in 1924–like California, driven by a backlash to immigration from China.
Together, these tests had a major impact on the electorate:
The 1920 Census count found that five million Americans were illiterate, about 8% of the nation; while the army found that 25% of its ranks couldn’t read or write in a literacy test administered for World War 1. Fifteen percent of New Yorkers who took the literacy test between 1923 and 1929 failed—55,000 people. Add these up, and estimates are that the total number of otherwise eligible voters in the North, excluded by literacy tests, was in the hundreds of thousands to millions.
In the South, literacy tests brought many of the same effects as those in the North and West, but served the primary purpose of a blunt tool of Jim Crow racial exclusion. Like the Alabama test above, they were loaded up with challenging questions, and then administered and scored in a way that targeted Black voters.
Beyond traditional questions, the substance and process of these tests became blatant tools of trickery, intimidation (remember, violence is always lurking in the background), and outright exclusion.
Take a look at these outrageous pages from a Lousiana test….
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