It’s troubling that some things in our nation seem not to change much. The Fourth Court of Appeals recently struck down a voter law in North Carolina, noting that the proposal cynically “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed that for America to abandon its common-sense rules protecting voter rights while claiming that racism “no longer exists” is tantamount to throwing away one’s umbrella during a rainstorm because you aren’t getting wet. Here’s Buchwald’s bitterly funny take on similar attempts in the Deep South during the 1960s.
ALABAMA LITERARY TEST
By Art Buchwald
Getting to vote in Bull Whip, Alabama, isn’t as easy as one would think. First, you have to sneak around a mounted sheriff’s posse, then fight your way through a cloud of state police tear gas, and then you have to leap over a hundred cattle prods. And finally, if you still want to vote in Bull Whip, you have to register, and the registration office in the courthouse is open only from 11:55 p.m to midnight on every sixth Saturday of the month.
The problem is that, although the registration office is open, the courthouse is closed, and it’s kind of hard to get into the building.
Even so, Mr. George Abernathy, an [African-American], manages, much to the surprise of the registrar, to get in and asks to register to vote.
“Fine, George, fine. Ah’d be glad to register you as soon as you answer a few of these here questions,” the registrar says. “Now, first off, what is your educational background?”
“I was a Rhodes scholar, I received a B.A. from Columbia, a masters from Harvard, and a Ph.D. from MIT.”
“That’s just fine, George. Now let me ask you this. Can you read an’ write?”
“I’ve written three books, on cybernetics, Christian philosophy, and advanced political theory.”
“Ah’d appreciate it if you didn’t use such big words, George. If there’s anything Ah hate it’s an uppity voter.”
Abernathy says, “I believe I have a right to register.”
“Yes, you do, George, but I have to give you this here literacy test ‘cause we cain’t have ignoramuses voting for our great Governor, George Wallace, if you know what Ah mean. Now, first off, would you please read somethin’ from this here newspaper?”
“It’s in Chinese.”
Abernathy reads three stories from the Chinese paper. The registrar is thrown, but he doesn’t want to show it.
“All right, now will you read the hieroglyphics off this here Rosetta Stone?” he says.
Mr. Abernathy reads the hieroglyphics and the registrar begins to get nervous.
“George, here is the constitution of Finland, in Finnish. Would you please interpret the first 14 articles for me?”
“What has that got to do with voting in Alabama?”
“We got to keep out agitators and the like. Now, you going to take the test or not?”
Mr. Abernathy interprets the 14 articles and the registrar becomes truly frightened. He telephones the Governor’s office and reports what is happening. An aide comes back in a few minutes and says, “The Governor says to give him Part 4 of the test.”
The registrar goes to his safe and takes out a clay jar. “George, there’s only one more thing you’re obligated to do for this here literacy test. Would you be so kind to read for me any two of these Dead Sea Scrolls?”
Mr. Abernathy reads the first one but stumbles on a word in the second one.
“Ah’m sorry, George. You’ve failed the literacy test, but you can come back next year and try again.”
As Abernathy leaves the office, a white Alabaman comes in to register to vote.
The registrar says to him, “Would you please spell cat for me?”
The white voter says, “K-A-T.”
“Try it again. You’re getting warm.”