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Bipartisan bill to remove Jim Crow-era literacy tests from NC constitution advances in state House

A bill in the N.C. House would put Jim-Crow era literacy tests, designed to disenfranchise Black voters, on the 2022 ballot, giving voters the chance to remove this provision from the state constitution. 

The bill, H.B. 337, has bipartisan support, with two Democrats and two Republicans as its primary sponsors. 

Article VI Section 4 of the North Carolina 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 is not enforceable, but lawmakers say its removal would provide an important symbolic change. 

Rep. Terry M. Brown Jr.

“It’s important to take account for the things that we’ve done in the past that have been negative and affected so many people like myself and my ancestors,” Rep. Terry Brown (D), a sponsor of the bill, said. “And really make sure that we are moving forward and taking these steps to be accountable.”

Literacy tests were banned by the federal government in 1965 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Gaston County lost a lawsuit challenging this provision in 1969 and was ordered to stop using literacy tests at the polls.

In 1970, the General Assembly passed an amendment to remove the provision from the constitution, but it failed once it reached North Carolina voters. Similar efforts in 2013 and 2019 didn’t make it through the state Senate. 

This time, the bill not only has the support of both parties in the legislature, but several influential advocacy groups as well. 

The John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank associated with Art Pope, millionaire businessman, has come out in support of the bill. 

“It is something that is worthwhile and important,” Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the Locke Foundation said. “Removing such a sad piece of our state’s past from the state constitution.” 

Rep. Kelly Alexander (D), another sponsor of the bill, said the legislation also has the support of the North Carolina Bar Association.

Rep. Kelly M. Alexander Jr.

“Given everything that’s happened in the past year, and while we’re thinking critically about what our past was, I do think that is going to be able to make it through the House this year,” Brown said. “I think that it will get heard in the Senate and I think that now is the time for it to be put on the ballot and I think North Carolina will vote to remove this finally.” 

The move comes at a time when the state is bitterly divided over the question of “critical race theory” (CRT,) which seeks to examine how racism functions within our society’s institutions. 

House Bill 324 seeks to ban the teaching of CRT in all public schools. The bill would ban schools from teaching that “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” among other ideas. The bill is currently in the Senate, and it is unclear when or if a vote will be taken on it. 

The bill to remove literacy tests from the state constitution has largely avoided this debate so far. 

“That is a big issue with what’s going on in terms of educating people in North Carolina about the past,” Brown said. “…Where North Carolina is now in 2021 is not where North Carolina was in 1899 when this provision was enacted. There’s nothing wrong with saying that when this bill was enacted, it was enacted for a negative purpose, it was enacted with ill intent in mind.”

The House State Government Committee approved H.B. 337 and referred it to the Rules Committee. If the bill wins final approval, voters in our state could see the issue on the ballot next year.

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