On June 12, 1967, in the case Loving v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down Virginia's anti-miscegenation law, thereby invalidating such laws across the country and allowing interracial couples across the nation to enter into legally recognized marriages. The plaintiffs, Mildred Delores Jeter Loving and Richard Perry Loving, were arrested in the wee hours of the morning in June 1958, confronted in their marriage bed by police officers and arrested for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. The couple pled guilty, received suspended sentences and were barred from the state. Several years later they reopened the case, leading to the now famous ruling. Click here to see a short film about the Lovings.
Many people celebrate June 12 as Loving Day, the day when racial barriers to marriage equality were toppled and when African Americans came a giant step closer to achieving full civil rights. Today is perhaps a particularly poignant celebration as we debate the status of same-sex marriage by recalling that less than fifty years ago whites and blacks (and people of some other racial backgrounds) could not marry in almost one-third of U.S. states. For decades, there has been a political and legal debate about the meaning of Loving and its implications for the status and rights of same-sex couples in our society. Some have argued that Loving, while useful to the same-sex marriage debate, is not a matter of simply or impulsively matching familiar figures in a test of legal reflection. Maybe not, maybe so.
The case of the Lovings was not necessarily simple or straightforward, either in law or in fact. At the time that the Lovings were arrested, the legal parameters of equal protection and due process doctrines did not fully resemble their modern forms. The factual backstory of the plaintiffs was equally as opaque. Few people realize, for example, that Mildred Loving, while identified by several documents, by some people in her community and by the justice system as black, did not necessarily consider herself black, but rather, as white and Native American. According to one author, her marriage license, hanging on the wall of her bedroom when she was arrested, identified her as "Indian." In an interview she gave in 2004 Mildred Loving was said to have identified her mother as full-blooded Rappahannock and her father as Rappahannock and white; she went on to say that as far as she knew “no one in her family was black.” The Rappahannock, like some other Native American groups, were sometimes described as being of mixed black and aboriginal blood--despite their own claims of pure aboriginal identity. One account suggests that Mildred Loving may have publicly accepted a mixed Native American-black designation in order to allow the case to proceed on firmer, more compelling grounds. In a case founded on race, the race of one of the parties was in no way clear cut.
One thing was clear in Loving: the case helped to dismantle racial boundaries and lessened law’s ability to serve as a tool to naturalize racial hierarchies and ideologies of racial purity. Whatever their racial backgrounds Mildred and Richard Loving were prevented by law from forming an intimate and social partnership with each other for reasons that defied logic. Anti-miscengenation laws, regardless of their targets, have long worked hand-in-hand with larger-scale regulatory regimes to limit the rights of citizenship to narrow classes of persons. Here the analogy is clear: permitting same sex marriage, like permitting interracial marriage, is a step on the path towards full civic membership for all.