Remnant of Jim Crow era remains in NC constitution

February 7, 2019

In the national debate over race and racism, people sometimes forget how recently racial discrimination was written into the law. In North Carolina, it still is.

A literacy requirement for voting that was added in 1900 remains part of North Carolina’s state constitution almost 120 years later.

Section 4 of Article VI of the constitution states, “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”

The provision was once used to keep blacks from voting by allowing precinct officials to create outlandish or impossible tests that only prospective black voters had to take.

In 1970, five years after the federal Voting Rights Act struck down literacy tests nationwide, North Carolina lawmakers put a proposed amendment on the ballot to remove the literacy test from the state constitution. But voters defeated the measure, keeping the test in state law.

House lawmakers of both parties have tried twice this decade to put a repeal on the ballot again, but House Speaker Tim Moore said Thursday that the effort has yet to succeed.

“There’s a worry about what might happen with that” if it were defeated again, said Moore, R-Cleveland, adding that he has no idea how voters might respond to another ballot question on the issue. “I would hope that amendment would pass overwhelmingly. It’s certainly something I would support.”

“Fortunately, the federal courts have struck that down, but I think it’s something we need to get rid of,” he said. “I hate that it’s even in our constitution, so we ought to get rid of that, and we’ve discussed doing that.”

Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, pointed out that his fellow Democrats also failed to get the literacy test repealed when they were in charge of the General Assembly. He’s a little more optimistic about the chances for a proposed amendment chances today and suggested it could go on the ballot in 2020.

“I think we can start having a conversation about it and educate people, and I think that really makes a difference,” Pierce said. “Let people know what it means, what it meant, and what we can do to get rid of it to move forward.”