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Qualifying to Vote Under Jim Crow

In this activity students learn about literacy tests and other barriers that kept black Southerners from being able to vote. Students also take a 1960s literacy test from Alabama.


  • Students will describe the barriers black voters faced in the Jim Crow South.  

  • Students will examine a 1960s literacy test and evaluate its effectiveness at keeping African Americans from being able to vote. 


Step 1:  Review with students the meanings of (and examples of) de jure (by law/legal) and de facto (by custom/extra-legal) discrimination. 

Step 2:  Pass out the worksheet "Qualifying to Vote Under Jim Crow." Ask students to take a moment and jot down what they know about voting in the Jim Crow South.  Ask them to consider who could and could not vote, what barriers (including laws) prevented them from voting, and what changes may have occurred since the end of slavery. Ask students to share some of their answers. Hopefully students answers include some of the following points:

  • Women (white or black, poor or rich) could not vote until after the 19th Amendment passed in 1920; literacy tests, poll taxes, and other forms of legal and informal methods kept African-Americans from voting; the same restrictions also prevented many poor whites from voting (though Registrars could waive fees or use easier sections of the literacy test if they wanted to allow whites the franchise)

  • Under Reconstruction, the Federal Government briefly protected the rights of African American men to vote in the South (who promptly elected black representatives to local, state, and federal government); after the Compromise of 1877, states put in place their own laws, effectively ending blacks' rights to vote. 

  • Various de jure restrictions included poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses (one could vote only if his grandfather had also been able to, limiting blacks' and immigrants' access).  

Step 3: Pass out the set of three documents and ask students to analyze them to answer the questions.  Students may work independently or in small groups.  

Step 4: As a group, go over student responses.  Responses may include:

  • De Jure Segregation: a literacy test (required by law), only two African Americans allowed to be in the Registrar's office at a time

  • De Facto Segregation: Registrar could choose hardest portions of the test, Hamer evicted from her home, police taking pictures of voters to later intimidate them

  • Challenges to Jim Crow: the meeting Hamer attended, organized to help African Americans understand their rights; the sample literacy test created by SNCC, used to help new voters prepare for the real thing; African Americans going to vote despite intimidation; Hamer's statement to her landlord; photograph part of a report compiled by SNCC to document abuse and intimidation; some might argue that voting was an act of resistance, since so much of society was organized to prevent this basic civil right

Historical Context

During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the United States government passed three Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) to the Constitution granting certain rights and liberties to African Americans. One of these was the right to vote. This right was seen as a threat to white southern society. Local laws known as Black Codes were passed that made voting nearly impossible for African Americans. Central to these codes was a literacy test that African Americans had to take. As slaves, black Southerners had never been taught to read and write. Some of these tests were extremely difficult and usually involved reading and interpreting sections of the Federal and State Constitutions. The situation continued until the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The registration procedures and the Registrars who enforced them, were just one part of this interlocking system of racial discrimination and oppression. The various state, county and local police forces, all white of course, routinely intimidated and harassed African Americans who tried to register. They arrested would-be voters on false charges and beat others for imagined transgressions. Often this kind of retribution was directed not only at the man or woman who dared try to register, but also against their family members, including children.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2007.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Qualifying to Vote Under Jim Crow,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 25, 2023,

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