Democracy means ‘rule by the people’, usually through representatives being voted into power by all the citizens of a country. Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s whilst black Americans were allowed by law to register to vote, in practice many were prevented from doing this and therefore denied their basic democratic rights.

One way the white people in power prevented black people voting was to make it very difficult for them to register to vote by introducing unfair literacy tests. In certain US states, between 1890 – 1965, literacy tests were used to stop the majority of black citizens from voting. The organisers of the civil rights movement protested in large numbers against these unfair restrictions.


This clip from the film portrays Martin Luther King’s call to all people to join the demonstration at Selma.


Follow these links to find out more about how the literacy tests denied so many people their democratic right to vote. After your research, discuss the questions below.

Try to pass the Selma literacy testWatch Harvard students try the Alabama literacy test

Information about Alabama voter registration & literacy testAlabama Voting Registration


  • How did you perform on these tests?
  • Why do you think the tests are so difficult?
  • What other information is asked for that might be used to deny the applicant their right to vote?
  • What were the consequences for African-Americans being denied the right to vote in the segregated Southern states?
  • How do people register to vote today where you live?
  • Has everyone got the right to vote?
  • Do you think anyone should be denied the right to vote?