By Syd Golston
Civics, Social Studies, American History
One Class Period (45 minutes)
9 – 12
- take what they think is a pop quiz on the Constitution, and grade it in class
- experience frustration because several questions are tricky or unfair
- review many parts of the Constitution that are included in the test
- read excerpts from President Johnson’s speech to Congress and parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
- research other obstructions which were placed before African Americans attempting to vote before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (optional extension)
Constitution Day is a great opportunity to discuss the document itself in the context of voting and elections.
Following the Reconstruction era, southern states and groups like the Ku Klux Klan enforced segregation and intimidated black citizens, keeping them through various ploys from registering to vote, or if registered, from casting votes that counted in elections.
Registration obstructions were comprised not just of literacy tests, although these were the most common. Registration offices kept odd hours, and required different documentation for black registrants than for white ones, who could cite a “grandfather clause” providing for automatic registration if an ancestor had been enrolled. Poll taxes punished poorer citizens who couldn’t afford them.
“White primaries” permitted only white citizens to cast ballots, and in states where the Democratic Party was the only one whose nominees ever won, the primary was in fact the election. Precincts were gerrymandered so that white voters would always outnumber African American ones; even if they did get to cast ballots, sometimes African American voters received “tissue paper ballots,” made of thinner paper and discarded before the votes were counted.
- Hand out the “Constitution Test” and tell students that they will take it because today is Constitution Day, by federal law.
- When students ask whether the test will count, tell them that you haven’t decided yet.
- After most students have completed the test, ask them to trade papers and grade the tests.
- Read the answers aloud. Do not respond if students say “That’s not fair” to an answer like that of #20.
- After students have marked the number wrong for their neighbors and returned the tests, tell the class: “You just took a 1965 Alabama Literacy Test to determine whether you were qualified to vote. Would you have passed it?”
- Discussion Questions
- You were pretty upset when you thought it might harm your grade. How might you feel if it robbed you of your right to vote?
- In 1965, you had to be 21 to vote. How old are African American Alabamans today who were 21 in 1965, and can remember these literacy tests?
- What are the requirements today for registration and voting in your state in the Presidential election?
- How did the lesson help you to understand the significance of this current election?
- Distribute the handout, “The End of Literacy Tests: The Voting Rights Act of 1965,” for reading aloud or reflectively. Does it affect their opinion of President Lyndon Johnson?
Students may wish to research other voter obstructions: gerrymandering, tissue paper ballots, grandfather clauses, white primaries.
Syd Golston served as the President of the National Council for the Social Studies in 2009-2010. She is a social studies consultant and Teaching American History grant director for the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona, and has written four books and many curriculum materials.