Even Harvard Students Failed the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test
The 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test, designed to thwart black residents living in the South at that time from voting in general elections, was as controversial as it was impossible to complete. And to prove just how absurdly ambiguous the questions on the exam were, a tutor at Harvard University asked some of the smartest students in the country to apply their knowledge and try to complete it.
The result? F’s all around.
The experiment, captured on video, was part of push to remind people about the importance of voting, and raise awareness about the barriers that kept people from getting to the polls to exercise their constitutional rights, according to Carl L. Miller, a resident tutor at Harvard and a fellow at the law school.
“Exactly 50 years ago, states in the American South issued this exact test to any voter who could not ‘prove a fifth grade education,’” said Miller in a post about his video experiment. “Unsurprisingly, the only people who ever saw this test were blacks and, to a lesser extent, poor whites trying to vote in the South.”
The test was anything but easy. If black residents wanted to cast a ballot in 1964, they had to answer 30 vague questions on the exam in 10 minutes—that’s three questions per minute—that ranged from tasks like “spell backwards, forwards,” and “print the word vote upside down, but in the right order.”
According to the rules, one wrong answer meant a failing grade, leaving no margin for error, something that would have any person feeling the pressure as time on the clock ticked away, the fate of their right to vote hanging in the balance.
Miller said since the test was meant to prove that a person had at least a fifth-grade education, he thought it “might be interesting” to see if some of the “brightest young minds in the world” could pass the literacy exam.
“We did our best to recreate the testing conditions that black and poor white voters faced back in 1964. Thirty questions. Ten minutes. Not a single question wrong. If anyone could pass a basic literacy test, it would be Harvard students right?,” he wrote. “Wrong.”
Miller said not a single student passed the exam, mostly because there’s a catch to the whole thing: it was designed in such a way that each question could be interpreted as wrong by the registrar official looking over the answers (spoiler alert: the people grading the papers were all white).
“Louisiana’s literacy test was designed to be failed. Just like all the other literacy tests issued in the South at the time, this test was not about testing literacy at all. It was a legitimate sounding, but devious measure that the State of Louisiana used to disenfranchise people that had the wrong skin tone or belonged to the wrong social class,” he said. “And just like that, countless black and poor white voters in the South were disenfranchised.”
See for yourself, and try to take the test below: