Officials working to change remove Jim Crow-era literacy tests

Between Jan. 1 and June 21, 17 states enacted 28 new voting laws that on some level restrict voting.
Published: Jul. 9, 2021 at 9:09 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Disenfranchised African Americans in many communities seeking the right to vote once faced a series of perplexing questions. Among them, how many bubbles are in a bar of soap? How many jelly beans are in a jar?

State representative Kelly Alexander recalls the Jim Crow era hindering barriers known as literacy tests that held back potential voters. Despite the intent of today’s free and fair elections, a troubling piece of the past remains buried in North Carolina’s constitution.

Mecklenburg County Elections Supervisor Michael Dickerson wants to see change.

Section 4 article 6 of the state constitution that says every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.

“You want that cleaned up,” he said. “You don’t want something in there. That’s going to challenge everybody’s right to vote.”

Alexander is hoping for passage of House Bill 337.

He’s the primary sponsor of a state constitutional amendment designed to repeal literacy tests.

Alexander said, the only way that we can close the door on it is to take it out of our constitution. So it’s not just sitting there potentially, in a position where it can become enforceable.

Former North Carolina Chief Justice Henry Frye tried to do something about it in 1969.

At the time, he was the first African American state representative sent to Raleigh in the 20th century.

His passion to change the state constitution came from personal experience that happened in his native Richmond, County, as a law school student.

Frye explained what happened to law school students at Duke University.

“I was subjected to a series of questions about various presidents of the United States. When I inquired as to why I was being asked these questions, the registrar told me that they were quote right here in the book,” he recalled. “I told him that I was prepared to read and write any section of the constitution that he would like, but he said that if I did not answer the questions that he was asking, he would not allow me to register.”

Frye’s bill made it out of the North Carolina house and senate, but voters in 1969 turned it down.

“There’s nothing, uh, that allows that section of the law ever since you’ve had the Voting Rights Act of 65, uh, to actually allow, uh, to have a literacy test,” Dickerson told WBTV.

Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama was a defining moment that brought momentum to the federal government implementing the voting rights, but North Carolina held on to the archaic language.

House bill 337 does have bi partisan support in the North Carolina House and Senate, but just like what happened in 1969 changing the wording of the state constitution means voters would have to approve it at the ballot box.

Alexander said, ”The political parties need to encourage all folk of goodwill to go out and vote to repeal this, and to make it very clear that it’s not a partisan issue, it’s a human rights issue.”

The bill remains in committee but it’s unclear when the measure will be debated on the house or senate floor.

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