Set to hit movie theaters next month, "Selma" will tell the powerful true story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight to push through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Before this very important piece of legislation, many African Americans were forced to take so-called "literacy" tests in order to exercise their right to vote.
And if this seems impossible to imagine, the filmmakers behind “Selma” have a very special section of the website where you can actually take the literacy tests that African Americans once had to take in order to vote. It doesn’t matter of you’re an English professor or a member of Mensa: I can almost guarantee you that you’ll fail this test. I certainly did.
Check out the questions right here and see what some American citizens have gone through just to be able to vote. And if you think we must all be exaggerating here about how ridiculous these tests were, watch this video where a bunch of Harvard students take the literacy test and flunk it.
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I recently sat down to take this literacy test, and I failed it. Big time. Keep in mind I’m a professional writer who’s had more than 2,000 articles published and a book on the way. You could say I’m pretty comfortable with reading and writing, yet this week I failed what used to be trumpeted as a basic literacy test. What gives?
Congressman John Lewis, who spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington (and who'll be portrayed as a young man in the movie “Selma”), told me in a 2013 interview about the absurdity of these voting literacy tests.
“One time, at many parts of the American South, [African Americans] had to pass a so-called literacy test [in order to vote],” he said. “On occasion, a man was asked how many bubbles are in bar soap. On another occasion, a man was asked the contents of jelly beans in a jar. [People] need to know that a few short years ago, in the state of Mississippi, only 6 percent of African Americans of voting age were registered to vote.”
The film "Selma" takes a poignant look at the many struggles of African Americans during this time. The discrimination was not only reflected in the unfair tests, but also the violence and cruelty inflicted on those who stood up for their basic rights.
Look Different correspondent Jazmyn Tuberville, who got a sneak peek of "Selma," describes a particularly gut-wrenching scene in the film, where protesters are met with a barrage of violence.
"Imagine peacefully walking down the street at night, your mother and father at your side along with dozens of friends and community members behind as you rally together for one crucial cause: the ability to register to vote. As you march on through the dark, clear night, you suddenly feel a police baton bash the side of your head and a fist meet your face.
"You flee past friends being beaten in the head, sides, and legs by police officers geared with guns and armor fit for nuclear war as people lie bleeding and screaming in the streets," she continued.
"The nightmare doesn’t end there. Once you and your parents find refuge in a nearby restaurant, three state troopers storm in and start brutally, ruthlessly beating your parents. As you struggle to stop the attacks, you’re pinned down and then murdered for trying to save your parents’ lives. This is the story of Jimmy Lee Johnson, one of many depicted in the Brad Pitt/Oprah Winfrey produced biopic 'Selma.'"
And while it’s easy to dismiss all this as something entirely from the past, the reality is that even today not all registered voters get to vote -- even if they show up at the polls. New voter ID laws have been criticized for keeping minorities from voting, because these laws concentrate on forms of IDs minorities and college students are known to lack or still be in the process of obtaining.
During this last election, for instance, it was estimated that Texas’ strict voter ID laws would keep 600,000 would-be voters from voting. Some are calling these voter ID laws the “new Jim Crow,” referencing the Jim Crow laws that once kept African Americans from using the same drinking fountains as white people or letting them sit where they wanted on buses.
To learn more about racial bias, and what you can do about it head to LookDifferent.org.
"Selma" will be open nationwide on Christmas Day.