Jennifer Welch, Rebecca Welch Weigel
Performing Arts, Social Science
Material Type:
Lesson, Primary Source
High School
  • Constitutional Theater
  • Living Document
  • constitutional-theater
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives
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    2. Voter Suppression: Literacy Tests

    2. Voter Suppression: Literacy Tests


    Through the play Beautiful Agitators and accompanying curriculum, students will eplore the life of Vera Mae Pigee and the impact of voter supression.

    Beautiful Agitators Lesson Plan: Scene Two

    Standards: Local & national civil rights history, power relations & social justice, relationship between local and national movement, relationship between past and present movement, knowing all of the organizations, acronyms and their perspectives, Freedom Summer

    Content Strand 4:

    A. Identify and explain the significance of the major actors, groups and events of the civil rights movement in the mid 20th century in Mississippi (i.e., Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, James Meredith, Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

    B. Understand and describe the historical circumstances and conditions that necessitated the development of civil rights and human rights protections and/or activism for various minority groups in Mississippi.

    Tactics: Organizing, collective action & unity

    Time Period: 1955

    Background for Instructors:

    Read: Civil Rights in America: Racial Voting Rights

    Read: DOJ: Before the Voting Rights Act

    Talking points:

    • Literacy tests were used as a tool to disenfranchise voters. This was primarily deployed as a tactic to prevent Black voters from voting but also at times used against other minorities and poor white people.
    • Literacy tests are completely subjective. They were given by officials in charge of voter registration. Those who administered the tests were able to choose when to give them and how to assess them.
    • Literacy tests demonstrate inequality in education and funding in education which can be understood when looking at school segregation and the underfunding of Black schools.
    • Literacy tests as a method for data collection for purposes of intimidation. Applicants were forced to list their place of work so that their employers could be notified of their activity and punitive measures taken.


    Sequence: Before the introduction of the Beautiful Agitators curriculum and before viewing the reading, instructors will distribute copies of the literacy test portion of the voter registration form to students using the MS Constitution for passage selection for interpretation.  Students will take the test and submit their test to the instructor.  The instructor will set aside the test until ready for this lesson. During this lesson, the instructor will hand the tests back to the students. The instructor will then randomly select the names of the students who have passed and who have failed. When introducing the lesson plan, the instructor will provide the background information regarding the use of literacy tests. Instructor will explain who designed/wrote the literacy test and who administered the test. The instructor will address what a literacy test suggests about the inequalities in educational opportunities and economic disparities between those administering the test and those who are taking the test. Explain the role of school segregation in maintaining barriers to literacy.

    LESSON: Literacy Test


    Through primary source analysis and group discussions, students will be able to:

    1. Examine how literacy tests were a means of disenfranchising voters.
    2. Determine who benefitted from placing these barriers to voting.
    3. Explain how the role of strategic organization sought to circumvent these discriminatory practices.

    Distribute copies of MS voter registrations/literacy tests to students. Working in small groups students will be asked to answer the following questions:

    1. What information did the potential voter have to provide?
    2. Who was being targeted by the literacy test? Why?
    3. How does the information required provide data for intimidation of those registering to vote?
    4. What reasons might a registrant fail to pass the literacy test?

    ACTIVITY: Literacy Test Results

    Instructor will hand back the students' literacy tests that were administered prior to the viewing of Beautiful Agitators. Instructor will assign a grade at random: pass or fail. Discussion will continue with the gauge students' reaction.

    1. How does it feel to be graded this way?
    2. What is the goal of this restrictive system?
    3. How does it feel to be denied the right to vote because of this system?


    Nick: Then what's the point of the citizenship class?

    1. What is Nick feeling?
    2. Do you relate to his frustrations?
    3. What was the point of the citizenship class?

    ACTIVITY: In-class research projects: Citizenship Classes

    Students will look at primary source documents that were used to explain, advertise and recruit teachers and students for citizenship classes across the Mississippi Delta. Students will answer the following questions:

    1. Who was recruited to teach the citizenship classes?
    2. Did the teachers receive training?
    3. Beyond registering citizens to vote, how did the citizenship classes work as a recruitment tool for the civil rights work in Mississippi?

    ACTIVITY: Registering to Vote Today

    Compare and contrast the voter registration process in the MS Delta in the 1950s-1960s with the present day voter registration process where you live today:

    Students can work in small groups or individually to determine voter eligibility and the process to register to vote and in their state.

    1. How does your county handle voter registration?
    2. When is a citizen able to register to vote?
    3. Where is a citizen able to register to vote?
    4. When are registered voters able to vote? (Ex: Day of election, week before, etc.)
    5. How are registered voters able to vote?
    6. What policies are in place to deny citizens the right to vote?
    7. What observations can you make regarding barriers to voting during the civil rights era and today?
    8. What are the differences in voting laws/regulations across the United States?  
    9. Which states have the most open voter registration and voting access and which states have the most complicated or restrictive voting registration process and voting access?



    Furthering the research process students will investigate the status of voting rights in their home state.

    1. Are there any legal battles regarding voting rights in your state?
    2. Identify the bills in the state legislature that have been introduced and/or bills that are being debated and voted on.  
    3. If so, what are the goals of these proposed bills?
    4. Are there any lawsuits before the courts concerning voting rights or voting procedure?
    5. What are the goals of the legal challenges?
    6. What organizations are involved in the debate of these voting rights issues?  What are their positions?

    ACTIVITY: Participating in the Conversation

    Option 1:

    Students will develop a plan to contact their representatives at the state or national level to engage in a conversation regarding their position on the pieces of legislation being considered/debated.  Before reaching out, students will be prepared to present their thoughts and opinions regarding the proposed legislation and will use evidence to support their argument. 


    Option 2:

    Students will write a Letter to the Editor for their school or local paper in response to the debate over a particular voting rights bill or lawsuit.  Students will be required to present
    strong supporting evidence to bolster their argument. Students should be mindful of their audience and be sure to offer their proposed action when concluding their article.


    Option 3:

    Students will work together to identify voting rights advocates or scholars that they would like to interview.  Students will work collaboratively to determine the questions they would like to ask.  Students will work in small groups to contact potential interviewees.  Students will schedule interviews, conduct the interviews and share the recordings and transcripts with the class.

    Beautiful Agitators Script: Scene Two

    Scene Two

    Summer of ‘55 a hot Delta night

    Vera walks slowly back and forth in the center of her beauty shop with a clipboard in her hand. She watches her students work tediously on their mock literacy exams.

    VERA: Alright, now. Time’s up.

    ALL STUDENTS groan while passing their tests to Vera.

    VERA: I don’t know what ya groaning for. Y'all had more than enough time. You don’t want ‘em to fail ya because you taking too long, now do ya?

    ALL STUDENTS laugh.

    VERA: Now everyone, turn to the last page of your book. There’s something I wanna go over ---l

    WILMA: I need to take these papers home and study more.

    VERA: (stops flipping through pages, focuses attention on Wilma): You can use all the time in the world to study ... You can be the most intelligent person to ever take the test ... You can even answer every single question correctly, but you can still fail the test if the official administering the test decides they want to fail you.

    NICK: - Then what’s the point of the citizenship class?

    VERA: You wanna know why we meet twice a week for three months? (looks at Nick) We want y’all to be able to register to vote.

    NICK: Why do we have to take a class to learn how to register to vote?

    VERA: Do you know how many colored folks are registered to vote in Mississippi?

    (ALL silent)

    VERA: 5 percent. 5 percent of eligible colored folks are registered to vote. If every single one of us went to register and passed the test we would become the majority.

    MARY JANE: We can get our folks represented in government and start changing some things around here.

    WILMA: Around here in Clarksdale and the state of Mississippi.

    VERA: Yes, Wilma! That’s why we want y'all to master basic skills so y’all will be able to stand before any of those county registrars and DEMAND first-class citizenship. Now, let’s look at one of the possible selections that could be on the test.

    NICK: One of the 287 possible selections. (Wilma laughs)

    VERA: Turn to the last pages of your book (ALL flip to the last page) On the exam, the administrator will point out a section of the Constitution, and you will have to write down what you think it means. Now, I’m gonna pick out a section and read it aloud.

    NICK (skimming through the page, inquiring to Vera): Why do they get to choose what section of the Constitution we interpret?

    WILMA: They want us to fail, they can’t let us gain the majority.

    NICK: They can go to hell.

    VERA: Nick, there’s no time for that kind of thinking. You have to exercise self control. You don’t want to call any unnecessary attention to yourself. Just take your test and pass through. (begins to read): Section 11 of the Mississippi Constitution reads, “The right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government on any subject shall never be impaired.” Can someone tell me what that means?

    (ALL silent. Nick looks flustered)

    NICK: Some of those cops wouldn’t know the law if you threw it in their faces.

    VERA: Let me explain Section 11. There’s two important parts that I want you to know. People have the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government. Now, the right to peaceably assemble simply means we have the right to gather with other folks to defend, promote, and even discuss our ideas without the government stopping it as long as we’re not causing harm to anyone or any property.

    NICK: (frustrated) Our folks protest peacefully. March peacefully and I’ve seen the state of Mississippi do everything in1 its power to stop them.

    VERA: It’s all about what we do and our impact. It’s up to us to do things the right way and to know our rights, so we can fight back. That brings me to the last part of Section 11. We have the right to challenge the government about things we don’t feel is right or fair through petitions. And that’s why we must educate ourselves about these things, so when it’s time to take the test, y’all will be more prepared.

    WILMA: Amen.  Amen.

    VERA: I say all that to say this here. No matter what section they give you, make sure you interpret it word for word to the best of your ability. (looks at the clock) Now, time’s up. (Students chatter) I still need volunteers to drive to Memphis and do the shopping for folks. This boycott is happening! Mary Jane is in charge of organizing that.

    MARY JANE: Yes, anyone who can drive, let me know and I’ll get the shopping lists & money together.

    WILMA: Here’s my list. I’ll see you at the food drive.

    MARY JANE: Thanks, Wilma.

    VERA: Here, young lady. (passes grocery list to Mary Jane) Now, remember that we don’t have class on Monday. I will be at the state’s NAACP conference in Jackson.

    BLACK OUT End of Scene


    Beautiful Agitators

     written by Aallyah Wright, Charles Coleman, Jessica James, Nick Houston and Jennifer Welch

    commissioned and produced by StoryWorks, Jennifer Welch, artistic director

    Lesson Two Video: Voter Suppression and Literacy Tests

    Lesson Two Video: Voter Suppression and Literacy Tests