1968 propelled history in dramatic fashion, much of it tragic. History teachers might await the 40th anniversary stories of 1968’s events, knowing that the newspapers and television specials will provide much richer material than any textbook could hope for.
Was 1967 less momentous? Perhaps. But an anniversary this week only serves to highlight how the entire decade was a series of turning points for the United States. This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s issuing the decision in Loving v. Virginia. The Lovings had been arrested, convicted and exiled from the state of Virginia for the crime of — brace yourself — getting married.
You see, Virginia in those days prohibited marriage between a black person and a white person. So did 15 other states. In language that is quaint and archaic to all but Biblical literalist creationists, the trial judge said:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The Lovings appealed their conviction. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down laws that prohibit a person of one “race” from marrying a person of another. (I put “race” in quotes because, as we have since learned from DNA studies, there is just one race among us, the human race. Science verifies that the Supreme Court got it right, as did the Americans before them who wrote the laws upon which the Supreme Court’s decision was based.)
From 1958 to 1967 — nine years the case wended through the courts. Oral argument was had on April 10 — the decision coming down in just two months seems dramatically quick by today’s standards. This was one of the cases that angered so many Americans against the Court presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Loving for All
By Mildred Loving*
Prepared for Delivery on June 12, 2007,
The 40th Anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia Announcement
When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.
We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.
When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?
Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the “crime” of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed. The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.
We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.
Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn’t have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” a “basic civil right.”
My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.
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.
* Together with her husband, Richard Loving, Mildred Loving was a plaintiff in the historic Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia, decided 40 years ago June 12, striking down race restrictions on the freedom to marry and advancing racial justice and marriage equality in America.
[Richard Loving died in an auto accident in 1975. Mrs. Loving did not remarry, and today lives in the house Mr. Loving built for them, still.] [Update, 2015: Mrs. Loving died in 2008; see tribute here.[
Additional sources for teachers:
- Recordings of oral arguments on the case, at the Oyez site of Northwestern University
- Wikipedia entry on the case
- NPR’s series on the case — audio, photos and text.
- “40 Years of Interracial Marriage: Mildred Loving reflects on breaking the color barrier,” Associated Press story in the International Herald Tribune. This is a great story of a life-long love affair.
- Mr. and Mrs. Loving, Internet Movie Database entry on the 1996 television movie about the couple and their landmark case. The movie does not appear to be in current release in any form.
- Harvard Prof. Randall Kennedy wrote about the significance of the case, on the 30th anniversary, in 1997.
- Loving Day, the organization to commemorate the case annually
- Joanna Grossman, Findlaw.com columnist on the legal legacy of the case