By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
Forty years ago today the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law that criminalized the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving.
Richard was white and Mildred was black. They had violated Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute and were banned not just from rural Caroline County, where they had met and fallen in love, but also the entire state of Virginia.
The Caroline County judge who in 1959 found them guilty of violating the Virginia Racial Integrity Act, wrote, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, 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.”
For those of us who grew up in the segregated South in the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of bigoted reasoning from a rural county judge was not terribly shocking. But there is no excuse for the disgraceful ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court that followed. In 1965, Virginia’s finest legal minds upheld the ban on interracial marriage, relying on an earlier case in which it said the state was obligated “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens” and to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride.”
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court -- only one hundred miles up the road from Richmond but worlds apart from the prejudiced provincialism of the Virginia judicial system-- saw it differently. The high court had given us Brown v. Board of Education a decade earlier, and had watched Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Loving v. Virginia was in the right place at the right time.
But it might never have happened, at least not here anyway, if U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had not referred Mildred Loving to the ACLU after she asked for help. The ACLU contacted Bernie Cohen, a young Alexandria attorney, who agreed to take the case, despite being concerned that he was not prepared for the monumental task before him. Cohen was later joined by another Alexandria attorney, Phil Hirschkop, who was only two years out of law school.
Together the two young Virginia attorneys, working as volunteers for the ACLU and representing the Lovings without charge, took the case all the way to the conclusion we commemorate today.
Cohen later became a stalwart member of the Virginia General Assembly, serving with distinction in the House of Delegates for more that 15 years. There he consistently supported state civil rights legislation and even introduced a bill to guarantee equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Hirschkop became the heart and soul of the ACLU of Virginia, helping to guide us through our formative years in the late 1960s and representing us on the national ACLU board of directors for most of the 1970s. In typical ACLU fashion, he ran the ideological gamut in order to consistently defend constitutional principles -- on one hand representing American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell’s right to be buried in Arlington alongside other war veterans, while on the other forcing the all-male University of Virginia to admit women.
The Loving case and the ACLU of Virginia are about the same age. When the case was decided in 1967 there were about 50,000 interracial marriages; there are now probably 400,000. Over the same time span, the membership of the ACLU of Virginia grew from about 1,000 to more than 10,000.
It would seem to be a good time to rest, at least momentarily, on our laurels-- to celebrate how far we have come since 1967. But it is hard to be joyous about the right to marry in a state that denies gay and lesbian couples that entitlement.
The harsh bigotry found in the words of Virginia’s judges in the Loving case seem like a fading echo from a distant past -- something we study for the lessons we can learn from them, but which have no place in these more enlightened times. But the closer I look at those old words, the more I realize how similar in spirit they are to the words used today by Virginia’s legislators, who have not only banned gay marriage but also prohibited gays and lesbians from entering into other legal arrangements of their choice.
It was a rising cultural tide that thrust the civil rights movement upon us and carried the Loving case to its inevitable conclusion. And one day soon, as more and more Americans see the pettiness of their prejudices against gays and lesbians, there will be a rising tide that carries the fight for gay and lesbian rights to its inevitable conclusion.
In the meantime, though, none of us gets a rest.