Jim Crow-era literacy tests are still in NC Constitution — but that could soon change

·4 min read

Heading into the weekend of Juneteenth, removing a voting literacy requirement in the state Constitution — a relic of the Jim Crow era that kept many Black North Carolinians from the polls for decades — is one step closer.

The bill has garnered bipartisan support, with more than 50 co-sponsors from across the political spectrum. One of its authors, Rep. Terry Brown Jr., a Democrat, said that removing the racist provision, though a symbolic gesture, has been one of his main priorities since taking office in January. It’s considered symbolic because literacy tests are no longer conducted at the polls.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the House State Government Committee unanimously passed the bill, which will get voters the chance to remove the language from the Constitution. Both the N.C. House and Senate will need to vote on the measure before it’s put to voters.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to strike the literacy requirement from the books. In 1969, then-representative Henry Frye, the first Black man elected to the General Assembly in the 20th century, got a version of the bill through the legislature. Frye’s bill put the issue on the ballot in 1970. Voters rejected it.

At the time, “people in North Carolina were not ready to vote for this,” Brown said.

The House passed other versions of the proposal in 2013 and 2017, but neither got a vote in the Senate. In 2019, yet another version was filed, but never received a committee hearing.

This time, Brown hopes thing will be different. If the bill succeeds in Raleigh, the measure will be included on the ballot during the November election. Changes to the state Constitution require voter ratification.

The fact that the state has not taken that action is telling,” said Kerry L. Haynie, an associate professor of political science at Duke University. “It is symbolic, but its an important symbol.”

Suppressing the Black vote

The literacy requirement, added to the state constitution in 1899, required voters to be able to “read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” A separate provision exempted people whose family could vote prior to the Civil War, securing the right to vote for illiterate whites.

The effect was that many Black people were dissuaded from going to the polls at all, in fear of being rejected by a white election monitor on the grounds of illiteracy. Those who did try to vote were often forced to take the test, and many times rejected even if they could read and write. Across the South, states enacted similar measures to suppress Black voters.

That was the intent and it worked like a charm,” Haynie said.

But in 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and outlawed literacy requirements, rendering North Carolina’s rule unenforceable. After the bill’s passage, “You saw immediate responses and reactions where Black voting in the Southern states shot up — way up,” Haynie said.

Though literacy requirements have been outlawed for decades, Brown said that removing the provision from the state constitution would be, among other things, a way to honor Frye, who first tried to eliminate it more than 50 years ago.

“The more we can do to show that North Carolina is an inclusive state, the more that we can do to show that North Carolina is moving past its previous transgressions, the better,” Brown said. “It’s past time that this provision is removed.”

Even if the bill makes it to the ballot, it isn’t a guaranteed win. The News & Observer previously reported that during a committee hearing in March, co-sponsor Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican, asked lawmakers to help educate voters on the history of literacy tests.

“People on the ground start saying, ‘Wait a minute, you ought to be able to read and write in order to vote,’” she said, adding that “We will very much need all of your help on the ground.”

Brown offered the same concern, saying that lawmakers will need to explain to voters that this ballot measure should not be conflated with the ongoing discussion about voting access or election security.

“We’ve been very careful and very deliberate in how we’re talking about this piece of legislation,” he said. “It’s going to take a very deliberate effort to go the public all across the state and say, ‘Everything you’re hearing on the news, whether you’re talking about voter ID, whether you’re talking about purging voter rolls, all those voter suppression things, that’s separate from this — that has nothing to do with what this bill is doing.”

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