Black History Month is a time for recognition, reflection, and inspiration as we acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to the progress of the United States. Dr. Nanika Coor introduces listeners to the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that gave interracial couples nationwide the right to be legally married.
Happy Black History Month!
All month long I’m centering African American contributions to the history of the United States and beyond! Today’s episode falls on Valentine’s Day, a day where many people intentionally acknowledge their romantic partnerships. In honor of Black History Month, I’m talking about a couple who took the legal acknowledgment of their relationship all the way to the Supreme Court. This is the trailblazing case of Loving v. Virginia, the case that made it legal in 16 states for White people to marry a non-White person in the United States. It also paved the way for same-sex couples' fight for marriage equality many years later.
Mildred Jeter, a part African American and part Native American woman, and Richard Loving, a White man, grew up as neighbors in a small farming community in Caroline County, Virginia. After knowing each other for several years, as he was friendly with her older brother, the two began dating in her teen years. At age 24, Richard proposed to 18-year-old Mildred after learning that they were pregnant. Interracial working and socializing wasn’t unusual in Caroline County, and when interracial couples wanted to marry, they did so in Washington D.C., where interracial marriage was legal. Mildred and Richard were married in June of 1958.
Five weeks later, back in Caroline County, the Sheriff and his officers barged into their home in the middle of the night while the newlyweds were in bed asleep. The Sheriff shined flashlights at their faces and demanded to know who the woman was that Richard was sleeping next to. Mildred said, “I’m his wife,” and the Sheriff replied: “Not here you’re not.”
The couple was taken to jail for violating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a Jim Crow-era law that made it a felony for any White person to marry a Black person—then referred to as “Negroes.” The Act stated that a person was legally classified as “Negro” if they had any traceable “Negro blood.” When it came to who could be considered “White,” the act states: “the term 'white person' shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons.” It’s also important to note that the act did not apply to persons of color from different races wanting to marry. This was a law not meant to protect the “integrity” of all races, rather the specific aim was to preserve the “purity”’ of Whiteness.
This law applied even if the couple had been married out of state and returned to live in Virginia, as the Lovings had. The judge presiding over their case made a deal with the couple: if they plead guilty, left the state, and did not return together for 25 years, their year-long jail sentence would be suspended. The couple took the deal and moved to Washington D.C in January 1959.
The couple had 3 children in Washington D.C., but they were unhappy there. It was far away from their friends and family in Virginia and the expansive countryside where they’d expected their children would grow up playing. Living in the city, Mildred felt as though her children were caged—plus, city living was expensive. On top of all that, in order to visit family in Virginia, they had to do so secretly, as they couldn’t be seen together there. The couple was homesick.
In June of 1963, Mildred wrote a letter to the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, and asked him to help her family return to Virginia—legally. Kennedy suggested she contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Two ACLU lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, agreed to represent the couple in what would become the U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia.
The two lawyers first filed a motion to have the couple’s conviction vacated, which would withdraw their guilty pleas and dismiss the court case altogether. It would be as if the original trial and conviction never happened. Judge Bazile, who had sentenced the couple to the 25-year banishment from Virginia, refused the motion, insisting that God didn’t intend races to mix, which is why He placed the different races on different continents.
Undeterred, Cohen and Hirschkop took the case to the federal district court, but the court was unwilling to rule on the validity of a state law. Next, they went to the Virginia Supreme Court, but that court too upheld the laws against interracial marriage. The case’s last chance was the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Loving’s lawyers had never argued a case in the U.S. Supreme Court. Additional lawyers and civil rights groups helped to write and file the necessary briefs, and Cohen and Hirschkop practiced their arguments in front of ACLU lawyers.
The 14th Amendment granted citizenship, equal civil and legal rights to all African Americans, including those who were formerly enslaved and had now been emancipated.
In April of 1967, it was time to argue the case at the Supreme Court. Cohen and Hirschkop’s overall argument was that the laws prohibiting interracial marriage violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. The 14th amendment, adopted in 1868 after America’s Civil War, granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to all African Americans, including those who were formerly enslaved and had now been emancipated.
In his opening statements to the Court, Cohen discussed the ways in which the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and similar laws were not about protecting the health and welfare of citizens in general, but rather that it was a “slavery law” meant to protect White supremacy. He talked about how Virginia and other southern states took the laws that existed before and right after the Civil War and fashioned them into these new laws. He stated: “These laws robbed the Negro race of their dignity. It’s the worst part of these laws, and that’s what they’re meant to do, to hold the Negro class in a lower position, the lower social position, the lower economic position.”
Cohen argued that “fundamental in the concept of liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment is the dignity of the individual, because without that, there is no ordered liberty.” He also argued that laws forbidding interracial marriage violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, as it was specifically meant to protect against racial discrimination, and that the freedom to marry was part of the liberty and pursuit of happiness granted by the 14th Amendment to all American citizens.
The attorney representing Virginia, Robert McIlwaine, based his arguments on three main points: one, that Cohen and Hirschkop were reading meanings into the Constitution that weren’t really there; two, that it was for the states to decide on legal statutes about marriage; and three, that “interracial marriages are detrimental to the individual, to the family, and to society.”
As his main evidence for this last point, Mcllwaine cited a book by Albert I. Gordon called Intermarriage: Interfaith, Interracial, Interethnic, which he described as “the most careful, up-to-date, methodologically sound study of intermarriage in North America that exists.” A 1964 review of the book, however, states, “The somewhat imposing title would seem to indicate that we would find an encompassing summary of the literature, some original work, several hypotheses about the factors that go into intermarriage [...] Regretfully, that is not the case."
Ultimately, the Supreme Court judges unanimously disagreed with McIlwaine, and on June 12, 1967, they ruled in favor of the Lovings. In delivering the opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Warren stated that “The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.” Mildred and Richard’s convictions were reversed on the grounds that Virginia’s statute preventing marriage between two people based solely on racial classifications violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment. They were free to live in Virginia as a legally married couple.
Shying away from publicity, Mildred and Richard and their children lived a private life in Virginia until 1975, when the couple was hit by a drunk driver while driving. Richard was killed and Mildred was seriously injured, losing sight in her right eye. She lived in Virginia until her death in 2008.
Every year on June 12, the anniversary of the landmark decision, multiracial couples and families celebrate Loving Day, a worldwide day of education, visibility, and community.
The Loving decision had a profound impact on American civil rights history and paved the way for barriers to come down around interracial social interaction, and arguments from the case were antecedents for modern marriage equality laws. In court cases across America, Loving v. Virginia was cited in arguments for same-sex marriage, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court ruling in 2015 making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
Your Black History Month challenge!
Tell your kids about Loving v. Virginia! A great book to spark conversation is A Case For Loving by Selina Alko. Talk about how the ruling has impacted the lives of multiracial families, especially if your family is multiracial or you know multiracial families in your community. Learn along with your kids about laws designed to uphold racial segregation. It’s also a great opportunity to discuss many issues including but not limited to social justice, racial equality, belonging, dismantling anti-Blackness, compassion, and persistence. You can also talk about how even though things have changed since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, there’s still a lot of work to be done to combat racism in American society.
African Americans have not only survived, but even thrived despite so many efforts to assure that we didn’t.
This was another episode that was fascinating to research. While I’ve known about the Loving case, I’d never read the court transcripts. The lawyers and judges quoted laws that had been on the books for centuries that were hateful, dehumanizing, and wildly ignorant. Being confronted with the ways in which Black lives have not only been historically disposable, but also a source of disgust and aversion, leaves me with a heaviness in my heart. My own parents, grandparents, and ancestors lived through segregation and worse and their pain is also my own.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me and fill me with pride that we African Americans have not only survived, but even thrived despite so many efforts to assure that we didn’t. Our ability to persevere makes me think of the hope conveyed in the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," otherwise known as ‘The Black National Anthem’. This version, sung by Kirk Franklin and Choir, gives me the chills. It’s like every one of my goosebumps is saying: "I know that’s right!"