Although it is no longer enforced, the law is still preserved in our state constitution. House Bill 337 shines a light on the white supremacist ideology that shapes our laws, while moving our state forward toward a more equitable future. If approved by voters in 2022, House Bill 337 will remove the literacy test from the North Carolina Constitution.
In 1899, the North Carolina legislature passed an amendment requiring that “every person presenting himself for [voter] registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” White voters were exempt from the test due to a “grandfather clause.”
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 made literacy tests unlawful in southern states, but the literacy test provision remained in North Carolina’s constitution. In 1970, North Carolinians voted against removing the section from the Constitution. In 2013, a similar bill received bi-partisan support in the House, but it was not passed through the General Assembly.
the literacy test serves as a reminder of longstanding racial injustice in nc.
Timeline of North Carolina Literacy Test
The Literacy Test was added to the NC Constitution. Voters approved the Qualifications for Suffrage and Office Amendment. It also included a poll tax, which was abolished in 1920. It was enacted to specifically target Black voters and other non-english speaking voting groups. It included a grandfather clause that specifically protected illiterate white male voters, who could still vote if their grandfather had been qualified to vote on January 1, 1867 (when people of color were prohibited from voting).
Specifically, the NC Constitution of 1868 was enacted to bring the state back into the Union, with a relatively progressive provision granting universal suffrage to all men 21 and over with residency requirements (Article VI Section 1). The literacy test was a direct effort to restrict this (relatively) permissive suffrage.
The Voting Rights Act was passed. After a series of lawsuits, the Literacy Test was prohibited in federal elections.
Chief Justice Henry Frye was the first African American state representative. Frye recalled receiving the literacy test at Duke Law School. Frye introduced a bill to repeal the literacy test from the North Carolina State Constitution. Voters turned down Amendment 7 and it failed by 70,000 votes.
The 1969 ballot measure read as follows:
[ ] FOR constitutional amendment abolishing literacy requirement for voting.
[ ] AGAINST constitutional amendment abolishing literacy requirement for voting.
The House passes HB 311 to repeal the Literacy Test but the Senate does not advance the bill.
The 2013 ballot measure read as follows:
“[ ] FOR [ ] AGAINST
Constitutional amendment to repeal the requirement that persons present themselves for voter registration and read and write a section of the Constitution, both of which requirements have been prohibited by federal law.”
House introduced HB 148 to repeal the Literacy Test unanimously. It was not heard in the Senate and died prior to the legislature adjourning.
The 2018 ballot measure would have read as follows:
“[ ] FOR [ ] AGAINST
Repeal literacy requirement as a condition to register to vote.”
The literacy test also draws attention to modern barriers to the polls for Black and Brown North Carolinians – like gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and felony disenfranchisement.
It was one of the many ways white leaders stole political power from Black voters. The test was added to the NC Constitution one year after white supremacists overthrew Black elected officials and murdered hundreds of Black North Carolinians in The Wilmington Massacre of 1898.
North Carolina has come a long way in increasing access to the ballot in ways that stand directly in conflict with the literacy test requirement. The state now has voter assistants to help those with disabilities, including blindness and illiteracy. We also have registration forms in Spanish and laws that require accessible polls and voting equipment.
We can’t wait any longer. It has been 51 years since North Carolinians have been given the option to repeal the literacy test. This bill would ensure all communities are part of shaping the future of North Carolina.