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South Carolina African Americans – Literacy Tests to Eliminate Black Voters

Also see: African-Americans - Reconstruction - 1865-1900 Main Page

Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

Article 2, Section 6 of South Carolina's constitution of 1895 specified that, "The General Assembly may require each person to demonstrate a reasonably ability, except for physical disability, to read and write the English language as a condition to becoming entitled to vote."

The legislature established provisions that seemed neutral on their face:
  • Those registered prior to January 1, 1898 had to be able to read any section of the Constitution submitted to them by the registration officer or understand and explain the provision when it was read to them by the official.

  • Those registering after January 1, 1898 had to be able to read and write any section of the constitution submitted to them or show that he owned and had paid taxes during the previous year on property in the state valued at $300 or more.
But these provisions allowed registration officials to openly discriminate by providing difficult and complex sections to blacks and then be hypercritical of the registrants' explanations. Whites could be provided with easier sections, with the explanations graded more indulgently. In defending this approach, Senator Ben Tillman remarked,
Some have said there is fraud in this understanding clause. Some poisons in small doses are very salutary and valuable medicines. If you put it in here that a man must understand, and you vest the right to judge whether he understands in an officer, it is a constitutional act. That officer is responsible to his conscience and his God, he is responsible to nobody else. There is no particle of fraud or illegality in it. It is just simply showing partiality, perhaps, discriminating.
And discriminate it did – virtually eliminating the black electorate.


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