The opening night speaker at the Tea Party convention suggested a return to a “literacy test” to protect America from presidents like Obama — a segregation-era method employed by southern US states to keep blacks from voting.
In his speech Thursday to attendees, former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo invoked the loaded pre-civil rights era buzzword, saying that President Barack Obama was elected because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.”
Southern states used literacy tests as part of an effort to deny suffrage to African American voters prior to Johnson-era civil rights laws.
“Prior to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965, Southern (and some Western) states maintained elaborate voter registration procedures whose primary purpose was to deny the vote to those who were not white,” a website for civil rights veterans explains. “In the South, this process was often called the ‘literacy test.’ In fact, it was much more than a simple test, it was an entire complex system devoted to denying African-Americans (and in some regions, Latinos) the right to vote.”
“Because the Freedom Movement was running “Citizenship Schools” to help people learn how to fill out the forms and pass the test, Alabama changed the test 4 times in less than two years (1964-1965),” the site adds. “At the time of the Selma Voting Rights campaign there were actually 100 different tests in use across the state. In theory, each applicant was supposed to be given one at random from a big loose-leaf binder. In real life, some individual tests were easier than others and the registrar made sure that Black applicants got the hardest ones.”
White applicants could be approved even if they didn’t pass the test.
“Your application was then reviewed by the three-member Board of Registrars — often in secret at a later date,” the site continues. “They voted on whether or not you passed. It was entirely up to the judgment of the Board whether you passed or failed. If you were white and missed every single question they could still pass you if — in their sole judgment — you were ‘qualified.’ If you were Black and got every one correct, they could still flunk you if they considered you ‘unqualified.'”
Tancredo, who is known for his sharp anti-immigrant rhetoric, also attacked what he called the United States’ “cult of multiculturalism,” and tore into 2008 Republican Presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
“Thank God John McCain lost the election,” Tancredo told the Tea Party crowd, citing his positions on government spending and immigration.
“This is our country,” he added. “Let’s take it back.”
Southern voting registrars could employ literacy tests arbitrarily. They included dauntingly difficult questions, aimed at keeping those they didn’t want enfranchised from voting.
For example, an Alabama literacy test required would-be voters to know esoteric facts about the US political and legal system (one of the literacy tests can be read here in PDF form).
Among the questions:
“If a person charged with treason denies his guilt, how many persons must testify against him before he can be convicted?”
“If a president does not wish to sign a bill, how many days is he allowed in which to return it to Congress for consideration?”
“If the United States wishes to purchase land for an arsenal and have exclusive legislative authority over it, consent is required from [fill in the blank].”
The answers to the above questions are two, ten and the legislature, respectively.
Tancredo called Obama a “committed socialist ideologue,” and referred to him by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama.
ABC News reported that the former Colorado representative’s speech “received enthusiastic applause at times,” but said the crowd did not fill the ballroom in which the event was held.
Correction: Tancredo represented Colorado in Congress, not California.