Virginia is for lovers is the state’s slogan. Not always. In 1958, Virginia was not for lovers if they were from different races.
Loving v. Virginia changed that. And America.
On June 12, 1967, the Court issued its ruling in this case, striking down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage (“miscegenation”) in America.
Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred, a 18-year-old woman of African-American and Native American descent, in Washington, D.C. When they returned to their native Virginia, they were arrested in the middle of the night and the Lovings were forced to leave Virginia. A few years later, young Mildred asked Robert F. Kennedy, the new Attorney General, for help. He suggested the Americana Civil Liberties Union and she wrote to them. Two young lawyers decided to take the case. They brought suit which eventually found its way to the Supreme Court
The Court ruled that that anti-miscegenation laws, such as those in Virginia, violated the “Due Process Clause” (“No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….” ) and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …”). In the unanimous majority opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:
“Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”
The Loving case deserves discussion in light of the recent decisions to allow same sex marriage in Iowa (a court ruling) and Vermont (a legislative act) and now New York. I have no doubt that this unresolved question is the greatest civil rights question facing America today. I am not a Constitutional lawyer, but I am certain that this landmark case will be invoked as the battle over same sex marriage continues.
I also have no doubt that the country will –perhaps ever so slowly—catch up with Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont, along with New Hampshire, the District of Columbia and New York in permitting same sex marriage. Recent decisions in Massachusetts and California make it probable that this issue will and before the Supreme Court. And the Loving case may be an important part of the arguments.
Change in American history is often slow. And it usually comes from the bottom up –not the top down. Whether it was abolition, civil rights, or even independence itself, when it comes to most of the great social upheavals of our past, the politicians and “leaders” have generally had to be dragged kicking and screaming in the direction of change. It may be glacially slow, but it will happen, in part because there is a generational change that will someday make the existing same sex marriage prohibitions on the books seem as antiquated –and despicable—as the now-unconstitutional bans on interracial marriage.
Before her death in 2008, Mildred Loving, the woman of African-American and Native American descent who brought the suit against Virginia, issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of the decision. She wrote:
“Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
I can’t say it any better than that.
The January/February 2012 issue of Humanities magazine featured the Lovings as did a recent HBO documentary, The Loving Story.
There is a more complete discussion of the history of the Lovings, their case and its connection to the same sex marriage debate in the new, revised edition of Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition.