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Landmark court decisions which shaped the country—Loving v. Virginia

Pictured are Mildred and Richard Loving.
Pictured are Mildred and Richard Loving.

On July 11, 1958, in the middle of the night, police officers barged into the bedroom of Richard and Mildred Loving demanding to know why they were together. Mildred responded by telling the police they were married and pointed to a framed marriage license in the room, which read “Richard Perry Loving, white, Mildred Delores Jeter, Indian.”

Earlier that year, the childhood sweethearts had married in Washington, D.C., and set out to live in their home state of Virginia.

Richard died eight years after the Supreme Court decision in a car accident, and Mildred died in 2008. In 2001, Virginia’s General Assembly officially denounced the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, regretting the law’s “use as a respectable, ‘scientific’ veneer to cover the activities of those who held blatantly racist views.” The Lovings’ story has been reflected in several articles, documentaries, and a newly released film called Loving.

This, however, was a violation of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which banned marriage between whites and “colored persons.” In the early 1960s, Virginia was one of many states with such a law. Virginia’s specific law banned any white person from marrying a non-white person and prohibited anyone from falsifying their color or race on a birth certificate in order to get a marriage license. Willfully doing so was punishable by jail time. The justification for this law was based on a theory that eliminating the opportunity for people of different races to have children together would prevent hereditary disorders and flaws.

Because they were violating Virginia’s law, police charged the Lovings with unlawful cohabitation. At trial, the judge ruled that “(a)lmighty God created the races ... and he placed them on separate continents ... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” The Lovings were convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. The judge agreed to suspend the sentence if the couple left Virginia and did not return together for 25 years. As a result, the Lovings left Virginia and moved to Washington, D.C., where they began to raise a family.

After five years, the Lovings, who had made separate trips back to Virginia to visit family, were caught making a trip together and arrested again. Frustrated with their exile, Mildred Loving wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General at the time, and then to the ACLU, who took the Lovings’ case. First, the state courts refused to set aside the Lovings’ original conviction, then the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals denied them as well. The Lovings and the ACLU persisted though, and Loving v. Virginia, found its way to the United States Supreme Court in 1967.

At the Supreme Court, the lawyers representing Virginia argued that because the law equally applied to both blacks and whites, there existed no discrimination, and that the Supreme Court should defer to the states to uphold their own laws on marriage. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that “(t)he freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness.” In a unanimous decision, the Court held that Virginia’s law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result, the Lovings were allowed to return to Virginia together as husband and wife and the ban on interracial marriages in other states ended.

At the Supreme Court, the lawyers representing Virginia argued that because the law equally applied to both blacks and whites, there existed no discrimination, and that the Supreme Court should defer to the states to uphold their own laws on marriage. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that “(t)he freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness.”

The Lovings, despite being part of this case, were never ones for the spotlight. They did not attend the Supreme Court hearing, and Richard Loving later was quoted as saying he and Mildred were “not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us ... because we want to live here.” Richard died eight years after the Supreme Court decision in a car accident, and Mildred died in 2008.

In 2001, Virginia’s General Assembly officially denounced the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, regretting the law’s “use as a respectable, ‘scientific’ veneer to cover the activities of those who held blatantly racist views.” The Lovings’ story has been reflected in several articles, documentaries, and a newly released film called Loving.

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