For Educators: Voting Rights Act of 1965
Activity 2: Obstacles to Full Participation in the Election Process
In the years immediately following the Civil War, landmark legislation granted African Americans citizenship rights, including the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which gave African Americans the right to vote and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. But for years, many southern states resisted racial equality and skirted the law by administering tests designed to prevent African Americans from registering to vote in the first place. From 1964 through 1965, the State of Alabama used 100 different literacy tests to make it difficult for people to "study" for the test. Applicants were asked to pick a test at random from a loose-leaf notebook. However, many organizations like Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama conducted voter education classes to help individuals to prepare to take the test.
Black citizens who managed to pass the registration tests were often threatened, fired from their jobs, or beaten. In other states like Louisiana, they had to be identified by two registered voters. In states where the Ku Klux Klan maintained power—Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi, for example—scare tactics and lynching intimidated many African Americans from trying to register at all.
Class Time Needed: one class session
Share with each student a copy of the registration test as well as a copy of the Written Document Analysis guide sheet. Using the guide sheet, instruct the students to review the test.
Now share with the students the Poll tax receipt document. Using the Written Document Analysis guide sheet allow the students time to study it.
To deepen students' understanding of the impact of these and other discriminatory practices on individuals, assign the students two short readings of testimonies from the book, Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South, by William Chafe. The book also comes with a CD-ROM and DVD of individual testimonies. The recommended readings are:
Have the students share with their family or community members copies of these documents and interview them about experiences they may have had trying to vote. Invite family members to your classroom to share their experience.