The movie “Loving” was recently released. “Loving” tells the story of an interracial couple in the late 1950’s in Virginia, who were sentenced to prison as a result of their marriage. The story is based on a real life couple and the cause they brought all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
In 1958, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving lived and fell in love in the State of Virgina*. They couldn’t marry in Virginia, due to the states anti-miscegenation law. That law made the couple’s marriage a felony. It said, “If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.”
And so, the couple moved briefly to Washington D.C. in order to get married and then, after they got married, they moved back to Virginia. As Mrs. Loving was classified as “colored” and Mr. Loving classified as “white,” they were soon indicted and sentenced. The sentence was commuted so long as they left the state of Virginia. The trial court 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 filed a class action suit in Federal Court, lost, and appealed the ruling, losing at each step along the appellate ladder. It wasn’t until they reached the United States Supreme Court that they were able to achieve victory not only for themselves, but for all inter-racial couples. The lower courts all found, with some little variation, that the State could make this law because it had a compelling state interest in keeping the races pure.
Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion in Loving v. Virginia, 338 U.S. 1 in 1967.** The United States Supreme Court held, “There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. 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. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.” Id. At 11-12.
In addition to violating the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, the Court also found that these laws violated the Due Process Rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. “Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U. S. 535, 541 (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, 125 U. S. 190 (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.” Id. At 12-13.
These days, it is hard to imagine that such a law would even be considered, much less passed or upheld in a court of law. But this wasn’t all that long ago – less than 50 years. We have made a lot of progress in that time, and there is still progress to be made. Regardless, the Lovings, aptly named, should be honored for their courage to defy the unjust law of the land and fight the tiresome and seemingly never-ending fight for justice. The world is a more loving place because of the Lovings.
* This whole case makes the Virginia Board of Tourism slogan “Virginia is for Lovers” a tad ironic.
** It is notable that it took a whole eight years for the case to work its way through the appellate system.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only. No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the particular details of your unique situation.