A week from today, I get to celebrate 4 years of marriage to my amazing husband Robert.
As I reflect on our marriage, I think about all of the people who’ve made it possible — those who formed and shaped and loved us in the days before our wedding and in the days since. I also can’t help but think of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple who won the right of interracial couples to marry nationwide.
The history of interracial marriage in the US is an ugly one. Forty-one states had antimiscengenation laws — laws banning the mixing of races — at some point in their history; the earliest one, in Maryland, dated back to 1661, and only a handful of them were repealed before the civil rights movement. The Lovings married in DC, where interracial marriage was legal, in 1958. Upon returning home to Virginia, one of the 24 states were where antimiscengenation laws were still in place, they were soon arrested. (A disturbing detail: The police arrested them at night, hoping to catch them having sex, so they could be charged with both interracial marriage and interracial copulation. Alas, the couple was asleep.) They were sentenced to a year in prison — unless they left the state of Virginia, and didn’t return together, for 25 years. In his decision, the judge wrote:
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.
That’s so insane that I think I need to read it again.
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.
I mean, really. Have you ever seen such terrible exegesis, such horrendous logic, in your life? In a legal decision, no less?
In the wake of their sentence, the Lovings moved to DC. In 1963, after years of feeling socially isolated and financially strained, Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to see if there could be a way for them to occasionally visit family and friends together in Virginia. (Not even to live there. Just to visit together.) Kennedy directed them to the ACLU, who took their case before the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, in a unanimous vote, the Court struck down the garbage ruling in Virginia, declaring antimiscengenation laws unconstitutional. In his opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:
The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state.
In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Potter Stewart astutely noted:
It is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.
And so the Lovings got to move back to Virginia, and the rest of us got the freedom to marry a person of any race.
When viewed by itself, the story appears to have a perfect ending. But when you zoom out a little, you see that things were much less rosy: Seventy percent of Americans disagreed with the Court’s decision.
In other words, at the time of the Court’s ruling, 70% of Americans believed that interracial marriage should have remained criminalized. But in spite of public opinion, the Court did what was right — and, not surprisingly, the rest of the country fell in line and got over it. Less than fifty years later, many people don’t know that interracial marriage was ever illegal — or even controversial — and you’d have a hard time finding anyone willing to take a public stand against it.
These facts still astound me. Forty-seven years ago — well within my parents’ lifetime — it would have been illegal for Robert and me to marry in many states. We could have been arrested. Not only that, but the majority of Americans would have nodded their heads and said that we deserved it. All because of factors entirely beyond our control. Very clearly, I cannot help the fact that I was born Asian American, nor did Robert have a say in being white. But 50 years ago, that difference would have made our marriage impermissible in many parts of the country. And that thought still makes my throat tighten, no matter how many times I hear this story.
So today, on the 47th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision (Loving Day, as they call it), I raise my glass to Mildred and Richard Loving, who made my marriage possible and are thus responsible for an immeasurable amount of my happiness and stability. I am deeply indebted to them — and I’m grateful for the ways in which their legacy continues on behalf of those who are still forbidden to marry because of traits they didn’t choose. Last month, in his ruling overturning the ban on same-sex marriages in Arkansas, Judge Christopher Piazza wrote:
It has been over forty years since Mildred Loving was given the right to marry the person of her choice. The hatred and fears have long since vanished and she and her husband lived full lives together; so it will be for the same-sex couples. It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it.
Amen. Happy Loving Day, everyone.
For more on the Lovings:
Committed (Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on marriage), pp. 69-71
A synopsis of the Lovings’ story in the New York Times obituary for Mildred Loving in 2008
A brief interview with Bernard Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who represented the Lovings before the Supreme Court