By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
Today, February 14, is Valentine’s Day. For the cynics, it’s a commercialized holiday intended to sell chocolate, jewelry and flowers. But for others it’s a celebration of love. I’d like to take this Valentine’s Day to commemorate love and to honor Mildred and Richard Loving. It is because of this couple that I and so many others are able to recognize through marriage the love we share for others of a different race.
Although anti-miscegenation laws existed in the colonial period, many were re-written in the late 1800s and early 1900s based on the “scientific” theories of eugenics. As a result of the lobbying efforts of two prominent eugenicists, who were also members of White supremacist groups, Virginia in 1924 passed the Racial Integrity Act, which criminalized all marriages between white and non-white individuals.
White supremacists believed they were superior to non-whites, especially African-Americans, and they were fearful of diluting the genetic makeup of their race with inferior genes. They also feared losing political power if the races intermingled and it became more acceptable to be African-American. So the Racial Integrity Act not only banned interracial marriage, but it also said there were only two groups of people—White and colored—and that colored was defined by the “one-drop rule,” meaning that any person with any non-White lineage was considered colored.
But as any poet or teenager can tell you, love knows no bounds and cannot be confined by society, whether codified in the law or simply understood. Such was the landscape when two young lovers were coming of age in Virginia. Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving had fallen in love and wanted to marry, but couldn’t because Mildred was of African-American and Native American descent while Richard was of European descent.
In 1958, Mildred and Richard were legally married in Washington, D.C., and then returned to Virginia, where they wanted to raise their family and spend their lives. In 2007, Mildred recalled the turn of events and in a statement wrote, “When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had a legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?”
Soon after they returned to Virginia, they were awoken in the middle of the night in their bedroom and arrested for violating the Racial Integrity Act. The Caroline County Circuit Court judge declared, "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 judge then sentenced them to a year in jail, but offered to suspend the sentence if they left Virginia for 25 years.
The Lovings left Virginia, but as Mildred said, “Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for love.”
And with the help of the ACLU and NAACP, the Lovings put up one heck of a fight. Two volunteer attorneys for the ACLU, Philip Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen, offered their services to Mildred and Richard, but at every level the Virginia courts upheld the constitutionality of the Racial Integrity Act. Hirschkop and Cohen appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, for the first time, their legal arguments did not fall on deaf ears.
The Warren Court unanimously struck down the Racial Integrity Act as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. With a stroke of its mighty pen, the high court had ended all legal prohibitions on interracial marriage, not just in Virginia but in the 15 other states that still banned miscegenation.
After nine long years, the Lovings had won, as did love.
In a triumph of love over hate, the strength of their affection for each other saw them through their fight against the white people who feared them so much—who feared the unknown that interracial marriage would bring, who feared the loss of political and economic power, who feared that the people they despised and loathed weren’t so different from themselves.
The Loving legacy is one that continues to grow. Mildred and Richard may have been fighting only for their own love, but their gift to America was to enable millions of people to honor their love for each other in marriage. According to the 2010 census, the number of interracial marriages rose 20 percent since 2000 to 4.5 million. This figure accounts for about 8 percent of marriages in the U.S.
The rise in interracial marriages also means a rise in the number of Americans identifying as multiracial. In Virginia, the number of people self-identifying as multiracial jumped from 90,000 to 233,000 in the past decade. The Washington Post reports that a third of that growth occurred in Northern Virginia, while the number of multiracial individuals doubled in some rural parts of the state.
We can only hope that the Loving legacy will continue and that a love between individuals can be legally recognized no matter their race, national origin, or sexual orientation. Love tends to be stronger than fear and can overcome many obstacles. With the Lovings having blazed the trail, let the good people who cannot sit idly by as injustices occur continue their fight for marriage equality for all.
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