Mildred Loving 1939-2008
Mildred Loving died at the age of 68 last week. If you don’t know the name, it might be a good thing. She was the plaintiff in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court Case that finally declared laws banning interracial marriages unconstitutional in 1967. Until 1967 some 17 states had laws against interracial marriage. Does that date sound a little late to you?
A lot has happened in forty one years. One of those things is that my wife and I got married way back in 1989, actually just twenty one years after the date of Loving v. Virginia. To be clear, interracial marriage was reasonably common in the United States well before that date as were mixed-race children. It’s just that it remained illegal in many states. In some cases the states tolerated it, you just had to go to another state to get a marriage license. In the case of Richard and Mildred Loving though, the state of Virginia decided to prosecute and convict them nearly a decade after the school integration case, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
For those of you following the Gay marriage debate, it’s a reminder of how slow social change can be. If you happen to be in Northern California, what was illegal in 1967 became quite routine in less than a generation. It’s now “normal” enough that Barack Obama is a serious candidate for the presidency. It’s maybe a hopeful thing that there’s already at least one state in the west with a married gay U.S. Senator. Even if he doesn’t admit to it yet, most of the rest of us know.
The actual story of Mildred (Jeter) Loving is pretty interesting. She met Richard Loving who was white when he was 17 and she was 11. She got pregnant at age 18 and the couple married in Washington D.C., a state that had no such ban. While this took care of the marriage part, it meant that the couple couldn’t go home and that they couldn’t drive into Virginia together even to see their family. As we discuss things like a state by state policy on abortion or gay marriage, the real life of the Lovings serves as a reminder of how strange state by state “civil rights” policies might be. I’m reminded that the basis of the Dred Scott case back in the 19th century was the question of how could the same man be “free” in one state and a “slave” in another. Saddest of all, Richard Loving died in 1976 in a car accident.
This is the language from one of the original judges who heard the Loving case at the state level,
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.
After the couple won their case, they kept their private lives essentially private. I think about Strom Thurmond who had an unacknowledged daughter with an African-American housekeeper when he was a young man. He spent much of his political career fighting desegregation. The daughter only came forward after his death a couple years ago. When he died, Thurmond was hailed as an icon and some sort of “hero”. I think about the quiet courage of the Lovings (yes, the name is ironic). Richard Loving did not want his child to be born out of wedlock nor did he want Mildred Loving to suffer the stigma of that so they took on the State of Virginia.
Forty years from now, I hope people will be shaking their heads at us and how long it took our culture to recognize the obvious. In the meantime, we need to think twice before calling other countries' mores backwards.
Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers
Labels: civil rights loving v virginia