Old North State Politics: The North Carolina Literacy Test: Lessons from 1970 – News Block

By Christopher Cooper

Last week, Representatives Alexander (D), Saine (R), Brown (D) and Stevens (R) introduced a bipartisan bill in the North Carolina House of Representatives to remove the literacy test from the North Carolina State Constitution. This bill is just the latest attempt to stamp out this racist holdover from the Jim Crow South; we’ve been down this road before.

I wrote about the literacy test in 2021 and 2022, but now that there’s a new bill out there, and one that seems more likely to pass, I thought it would be a good time to reevaluate the issue, but hopefully without tilling the same ground. Below, I briefly review the origins of the literacy test (spoiler alert: it’s racist), briefly look at the last statewide vote on the subject in 1970, and discuss what it all means for the likelihood of repeal this year.

The origins of the literacy test

At the height of the Jim Crow Era, the North Carolina General Assembly, like many southern state legislatures, passed a suffrage amendment to make it harder for African-Americans to vote. The part of the amendment relating to the literacy test stated that anyone “attempting to register to vote must be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” Of course, anyone who could vote before 1867 was grandfathered in and did not have to take the literacy test. In other words, it was okay to be illiterate, as long as you were white. The literacy test was passed by a majority of North Carolina voters in 1900.

The racist roots of the law were not implied, but were fully exposed. Watch this clip of the Fayetteville Observer in 1899 when the suffrage amendment was proposed. Pretty simple stuff.

Still not convinced that the literacy test is racist? Watch this clip later in the same article (below). And, if you’re wary of academic types and think I’m taking something out of context, here’s a link to the full page so you can see for yourself. (1)

After being used to suppress black voting for decades, the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 stripped the literacy test of its enforcement power. With the stroke of a pen, LBJ turned the literacy test from an active tool of oppression into an unsightly, garish symbol of racism, albeit without the force of law.

The 1970 vote

Although the idea of ​​repealing the literacy test comes up from time to time, only once has a bill passed in the General Assembly and a vote of the people (because the literacy test is enshrined in the Constitution, it requires not only legislative approval, but the vote of the people for its repeal).

In 1970, North Carolina voters were presented with seven potential constitutional amendments, including adopting a new state Constitution, removing the literacy test, and 5 other items (it’s a fascinating story as to why these other amendments weren’t included in the proposed Constitution, but this blog is getting too long so I’ll save it for another day).

As you can see in the table below, all the proposals were approved, except for the abolition of the literacy test.

The abolition of the literacy test not only failed; it failed spectacularly. Despite predictions of success, a majority of voters in just 22 of North Carolina’s 100 counties chose to eliminate the literacy test. The list of counties that voted for and against the amendment might surprise you. A majority of voters in Wake, Mecklenburg and Durham counties voted to keep the literacy test in the state Constitution. However, some unlikely counties like Madison, Graham, and Jackson voted to remove it.

The map below shows each county in North Carolina with its vote on the amendment represented from green (more support for repeal) to white (least support for repeal).

The complete list of counties with vote totals and other information is available in this spreadsheet. But if you’re looking for the list of counties that supported the repeal of the literacy test, I’ll save you a click:

County % for repeal County % for repeal
madison 71 Cherokee 57
yancey 68 Mitchell 56
Ashe 67 Wilkes 54
graham 66 Orange 54
watauga 64 carteret 52
polish 62 chowan 51
Clay 60 buncombe 51
Swain 60 Surry 51
avery 60 Haywood 51
northampton 60 transylvania 51
jackson 60 guilford fifty

To learn a bit more about the patterns of support, I ran a model to see if support for the Democratic party, county racial makeup, or population size were associated with support for repealing the literacy test. In short, I found that population size has nothing to do with voting patterns on the literacy test. However, the racial makeup of the county and support for the Democratic Party were important predictors. (2)

As you can see below, on average, the counties that gave the most support to George McGovern (the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee) were most likely to support eliminating the literacy test. Even controlling for other factors, on average, a 1 percentage point increase in support for McGovern led to about a 0.6 percentage point increase in county-level support for repeal.

Here it is where it gets interesting. You might think that places with larger black populations would be more likely to support removing the literacy test. The truth is actually the opposite.

As you can see in the chart below, there are exceptions, but as a general (and statistically significant) rule, the counties with the largest black populations were less likely to support removing the literacy test. Controlling for other factors, each percentage point increase in the percentage of blacks in a county resulted in about 0.3% percentage point less support for eliminating the literacy test.

This does No it meant that blacks were voting to keep the literacy test. Instead, it is more likely that the white vote in counties with high black populations overwhelmingly supported the literacy test.

These results broadly support racial threat theory, the idea that whites are more likely to respond negatively and support racist policies and candidates when surrounded by diverse populations. This is also consistent with other work on race in North Carolina, particularly David Cunningham’s research on Klan chapters.

Could this time be different?

In short, the vote to repeal last time around was disappointing and perhaps a bit contradictory. But this time it could be different.

First, there appears to be strong bipartisan support for repeal this time around, and in an era where bipartisanship in all but the marsupial state is virtually unheard of. This is not only true at the legislative level, but there is bipartisan support for repeal among the party’s network of activists and think tanks.

Second, while the effects of the racial threat are still evident in many parts of American politics, the past half-century has seen a massive increase in black voter registration and participation. In 1970, white turnout exceeded that of blacks, even in counties with relatively large black populations. Today that participation gap is much smaller. As a result, we might expect black participation to offset the lingering effects of white racial threat in counties like Wake, Mecklenburg, and Durham.

Ultimately, if this bill passes, it will be put to the vote during a presidential election year, the highest of high turnout environments, and one likely to reflect the will of the people in North Carolina.

The tradition has been that North Carolina legislators have long supported eliminating the literacy test, but feared we would have a repeat of the 1970 vote. Hopefully, the changes described above and growing awareness of the racist roots of the literacy test will make those fears unfulfilled.



1. And if you are still If you’re not convinced, I encourage you to read Fragile Democracy (actually, I encourage you to read Fragile Democracy anyway).

2. To gauge Democratic party support, I counted the county-level vote for George McGovern (the 1972 Democratic Party nominee for president) versus the vote for Richard Nixon (the Duke graduate and Republican Party nominee for president in the same year).


Christopher Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. he tweets on @chriscooperwcu.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top