American Culture

Loving and loving…

Love’s not Time’s fool…. William Shakespeare
I know why the caged bird sings… Paul Laurence Dunbar

Today is a dubious anniversary in the history of my current state of sojourn, Virginia.

It is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Virginia’s (and by its precedent the rest of the South’s) anti-miscegenation laws.

The case of Loving v. Virginia was the beginning of the end of a sad chapter in America’s history.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the Loving case is that it sprang from an interracial marriage ban in the very place where the first interracial marriage in North America occurred when Pocahontas married John Rolfe. Oddly enough, some Founding Fathers encouraged interracial marriage:

Thomas Jefferson begged Americans to consider “let[ting] our settlements and [Indians’] meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people”. American patriot Patrick Henry even proposed that intermarriage between whites and Indians be encouraged through the use of tax incentives and cash stipends.

Of course, the arrival of African-Americans and with them the “peculiar institution” (as slavery was termed) changed the terms of the equation and “separation” of the races – whether for sexual, cultural, or economic reasons became common.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction came Plessy v. Ferguson and the (in theory) idea of “separate but equal” which was in practice, of course, separate but horribly unequal. Attendant to Plessy came strict enforcement of the “hydrodescent” rule – the notion that “one drop” of non-white blood made a person into a minority. Booker T. Washington summarized this demented notion succinctly:

It is a fact that, if a person is known to have one percent of African blood in his veins, he ceases to be a white man. The ninety-nine percent of Caucasian blood does not weigh by the side of the one percent of African blood. The white blood counts for nothing. The person is a Negro every time.

And a little later, no less an entity than the revitalized Ku Klux Klan of the 1920’s inspired the passage of legislation aimed at outlawing any interracial unions:

Intolerance was also manifested in other ways. In 1924 a Virginia law was passed that prohibited whites from marrying anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” Virginia was not unique; marriage between whites and blacks was by this time illegal in thirty-eight states….As late as the 1950s, almost half of the states had miscegenation laws. While the original statutes were directed wholly against black-white unions, the legislation had extended to unions between whites and Mongolians, Malayans, Mulattos, and Native Americans.

It was in this America that Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving fell in love. Having grown up together in rural Caroline County, Virginia, the couple knew each other from childhood. Knowing that Virginia forbade interracial marriage, they eloped to Washington, DC in 1958 and married. Thinking that their marriage would be honored in Virginia by reciprocity, they returned to their home in Virginia. They found themselves mistaken:

But when they returned home, they were arrested, jailed and banished from the state for 25 years for violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act….To avoid jail, the Lovings agreed to leave Virginia and relocate to Washington.

Language from the judge’s opinion against the Lovings seems almost medieval in its its reliance on the twistedly Biblical:

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 moved to Washington. But eventually, perhaps spurred by the civil rights movement, they decided to pursue legal relief – and their case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1967. There they – and all people – got relief from centuries of prejudice and bigotry. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, representing the unanimous opinion:

“Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not marry a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed upon by the State.”

With that decision, all the remaining anti-miscegenation laws in the country were null and void.

Sadly, Richard Loving did not live to see the long term effects of the landmark legal decision that allowed him and his wife Mildred to return home to family and friends in VA:

After the ruling — now known as the “Loving Decision” — the family, which had already quietly moved back to Virginia, finally returned home to Caroline County…. But their time together was cut short: Richard Loving died in a car crash in 1975. Mildred Loving, who never remarried, still lives in Caroline County in the house that Richard built. She politely refuses to give interviews.

The bravery and steadfastness of the Lovings – and their love – can’t be underestimated. They helped make our society more open and free. They are heroes.

And they’ve given us an anniversary America can be proud of.

3 replies »

  1. Banished? Is banishment still on the books somewhere as a legal penalty? Insane. Also, let’s keep in mind that this is the USA that Trent Lott and his many Republican kind miss so much. Also insane.

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