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Book Displays: Equal Justice Initiative 2022: Jan

Virtual displays based on the annual A History of Racial Injustice calendar.

January's Topic - Poll Tests

Calendar photo caption: A woman learns how to vote at a church class in Greene County, Alabama, in 1966. (Flip Schulke/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Calendar Text

To be readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, former Confederate states had to provide Black men the right to vote. Within two years, 80% of eligible African Americans in 10 of 11 former Confederate states had registered to vote, upending the white majority in many states. As a result, states found ways to bar Black people from voting despite the Fifteenth Amendment's ban on race-related voting restrictions.

For most of the 20th century, Southern states, where most Black people lived, used poll tests to keep the electorate as white as possible. Most white voters were exempted from poll tests through grandfather clauses that allowed white voters to register without taking a test if they could prove they had one grandfather who voted before the Civil War - when Black people were almost universally disenfranchised in the South. By "grandfathering in" most white voters, poll tests helped achieve lawmakers' goals of racial disenfranchisement.

Poll tests became increasingly difficult, challenging, and absurd. Many states used unanswerable or intentionally confusing questions like "Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence," and "How many jelly beans are in this jar?" The white registration officials who administered poll tests had sole discretion to decide if a registrant had passed or failed.

This discrimination helped keep Black registration rates in Southern states far below white rates for generations. In March 1965, just before the Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting requirements, the Black registration rate in Mississippi was only 6.7%. Less than two years after the Voting Rights Act made poll tests illegal, nearly 60% of Black adults in the state were registered voters.