State lawmaker: Jim Crow has no place in North Carolina’s constitution

Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

NC must remove stain of white supremacy from its governing document

The North Carolina constitution contains an alarming provision from a dark period in our history: a literacy test requirement to keep Black voters from the ballot box.

I am determined to finally repeal it.

In 1899, the North Carolina legislature amended the state constitution with measures to steal and suppress Black political power. The literacy test, one of many tactics, required every person of color who wanted to exercise their freedom to vote to be able to read and write any section of the constitution in English. A “grandfather clause” protected white voters by stating that anyone who had been eligible to vote (or had an eligible ancestor) under 1867 state law was exempted from this test.

Politicians added the literacy test to our state constitution in the immediate aftermath of the 1898 Wilmington massacre, where white supremacists overthrew Black elected officials and murdered hundreds of Black North Carolinians. Lawmakers of the era were determined to preserve white political, social, and economic dominance in North Carolina. Their fingerprints are still on our constitution.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests and made North Carolina’s law unenforceable, but we have never managed to remove this stain from our core governing document. In 1970, North Carolinians voted against removing the literacy test from the state Constitution. In 2013 and 2019, bills to allow voters to vote for a literacy test repeal gained traction in the legislature but never passed.

We are reigniting this effort in the North Carolina General Assembly. Change is long overdue.

The General Assembly must give North Carolina voters another chance to repeal the literacy test at the ballot box. My bipartisan bill, House Bill 337, would ask voters whether to repeal the literacy test section of the Constitution on the November 2022 ballot. The bill has overwhelming support from lawmakers of both parties and must remain a top priority this legislative session. It is an insult to Black, brown, and Indigenous North Carolinians to maintain this provision and to defer the matter year after year.

North Carolina is one of few states with a literacy test still enshrined in state law, along with Delaware, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Wyoming. Alabama lawmakers are actively reviewing and redrafting their 1901 Constitution – written with the express intent to establish a white supremacist state – including removing a poll tax provision. As our region and nation grapple with past and present racism in our communities and institutions, North Carolina must not fail to act. We must join our neighbors and signal our commitment to democracy, civil rights, and the freedom to vote for all North Carolinians – no matter what we look like or who we vote for.

In the last year, North Carolina communities took action to remove at least twenty-four Confederate monuments throughout the state, and countless politicians and Fortune 500 companies declared their commitment to protecting Black lives. We should reinforce that commitment by removing the literacy test from the state Constitution. We have had decades to right this wrong. Now is the time.

Representative Terry Brown is the State Representative for House District 92 in Mecklenburg County.