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

Documents Needed:

Teacher Tip


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.

Discussion Questions:

How would a person prepare to take the test?
By passing the exam, was it a guarantee that they would be allowed to vote?

Now share with the students the Poll tax receipt document. Using the Written Document Analysis guide sheet allow the students time to study it.

Discussion Questions:

Why do you think the poll tax, like the exam, was such a successful strategy in preventing minorities from voting?
How do you think these tactics of blocking a minority group of citizens from exercising their civil rights affect their social and political gains as well as the stability of their community?

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:

Leon Alexander (pp.277-281)
George Kenneth Butterfield (pp. 281-285)
Oral Interviews

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.

additional information and links.