(Editor’s note: Yesterday, in just the latest in long and growing line of such decisions, a federal judge in Texas struck down that state’s ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. The following essay celebrates a likeminded decision by the U.S. Supreme Court issued 47 years ago.)
Recently, I viewed the 2011 HBO documentary The Loving Story, which tells the story of an interracial couple whose legal battle culminated in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia. That ruling, of course, declared all state bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional.
Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was Black and Native American, both living in rural Virginia. Their 1958 marriage violated the 1924 “Racial Integrity Act,” which criminalized marriage between white and non-white persons. In that same year, the Lovings were dragged out of their home in the middle of the night, arrested, and later convicted and banished from Virginia.
Living in Washington D.C., away from their friends and family, by 1963 they had had enough, and wrote to then U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU carried their suit to the Supreme Court, where lawyers defending the ruling of the Virginia State Supreme Court argued that “marriage has traditionally been subject to state regulation without federal intervention, and, consequently, the regulation of marriage should be left to exclusive state control by the Tenth Amendment.”
Happily, however, the Warren Court rejected this argument and issued a sweeping ruling that overturned all state statutes prohibiting interracial marriage. In his concurring opinion, Justice Potter Stewart stated that “I have previously expressed the belief that it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.”
While the legal battle was duly chronicled, at the heart of this film was a love story. Richard and Mildred were quite obviously devoted to one another; they were people who lived an uncomplicated and quiet life, but they were determined to live their lives and raise their children where they wanted to, surrounded by their friends and their family, without the interference of the state. While the Lovings were certainly elated by the Court’s decision, they did not need a Supreme Court to tell them that what they had endured was just plain wrong.
When I emailed a colleague of mine, telling her how compelling I had found this film, her reply included a quote from Mildred Loving, issued in 2007 on the fortieth anniversary of the Loving decision, one year before her death. The concluding paragraphs of her statement read as follows:
“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. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights. 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.”
One should bear in mind that the Lovings were raised in the Bible belt. But they had felt the lash of state intervention that was motivated solely by bigotry. Mildred Loving did not need a lawyer to tell her that state laws and constitutional amendments prohibiting marriage equality, based upon religiously-inspired moral imperatives, have no rational justification in our society of today. As court challenges here in North Carolina and around the country work their way through the judiciary, Mildred Loving’s words are a great comfort to me, my partner, and our allies in the battle for marriage equality.
May she rest in peace.
Dr. Charles Beem is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.