In honor of African-American History Month, I will tell a true story that illustrates how difficult it was for African-Americans to vote prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A young African-American man has returned home to North Carolina to marry his sweetheart. On the eve of the wedding, he decides to take time to register to vote. It used to be that there were only certain days you could register, and if he missed this opportunity he wouldn’t be able to participate in the next election.
Back then, a person had to take a test before being allowed to register to vote. It was called a literacy test. By law, a person had to be able to read and write a section of the Constitution to the “satisfaction of the Registrar”.
The young man is prepared. He’s read the law. He knows his rights. He walks in and asks to register to vote.
But the Registrar doesn’t ask him the required questions. He starts asking random questions that were not part of the literacy requirement.
“Who was the 14th president of the United States?”
“Name three signers of the Declaration of Independence.”
Questions like that. Questions that were arbitrary. Questions that were capricious. Questions that weren’t part of the law. The young man, who had served his country in both Korea and Japan and who held the rank of lieutenant, fails the test.
The registrar refuses to register him. The young man leaves, denied the right to register to vote.
Denied the right to vote.
The young man does not forget this.
He didn’t forget this while he attended UNC Law School.
He didn’t forget this when he was elected to the General Assembly in 1968.
He didn’t forget it when he was sworn in as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in North Carolina in 1983.
He didn’t forget it in 1999, when he was sworn in as the first African-American Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The young man’s name is Henry Frye. You can read the full story about his experience and the impact of literacy tests in general in New York Magazine’s A Dream Undone.