Peggy Pascoe is the Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History and Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon. Her book, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race is America has won two awards from the Organization of American Historians: the Lawrence Levine Prize for the best book on American cultural history and the Ellis Hawley Prize for the best book on political economy or American institutions. In this post, Professor Pascoe shares the history of Loving Day, taking place this Friday, June 12th.
Friday, June 12th is Loving Day, a holiday that deserves widespread attention.
Loving Day commemorates the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, the case that made interracial marriage legal. Both the case and the holiday take their name from Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple who grew up and fell in love in Virginia, a state that epitomized America’s tragic history of miscegenation law. Between 1890 and 1948, 30 states outlawed interracial marriage; many of them banned whites from marrying Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and American Indians as well as blacks. Enforced by police and prosecutors, by marriage license clerks, and in civil and criminal courts, miscegenation laws were designed to prevent interracial couples from marrying and to punish them if they did. Judges justified these laws by insisting that interracial marriage was somehow “unnatural,” a claim that became so pervasive that by 1958, 94 percent of Americans told pollsters they opposed interracial marriage.
In 1959, when Richard Loving, a “white” man, decided to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mildred Jeter, a “colored” woman, he knew they had no hope of getting a license in Virginia, so the pair traveled to Washington, D.C. to get married, then returned to Virginia, where they moved in with Mildred’s parents. The newlyweds had lived together for a little more than a month when they were awakened in the middle of the night by the sheriff and his deputies, who walked through the unlocked door of their house and right into the Lovings’ bedroom to arrest them.
When the Lovings went on trial, county judge Leon Bazile imposed a one-year sentence, which he suspended on the condition that Richard and Mildred agree to leave Virginia for the next 25 years. A few years later, the ACLU persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the Lovings’ case, and on June 12, 1967, the Court unanimously declared Virginia’s miscegenation law—and those of all the rest of the states, too—unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that bans on interracial marriage violated both the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the constitutional requirement of due process. Marriage, Warren declared, was one of “the basic civil rights.”
It is telling that although Loving v. Virginia was decided in 1967, Loving Day didn’t become a holiday until 2004. In the meantime, Americans had a lot of work to do. Even the most recalcitrant of southern states had to repeal their miscegenation laws, a process that took until the year 2000. Public opinion had to undergo a dramatic reversal, until many more Americans approved of interracial marriage than disapproved of it. Then people had to begin to forget that interracial marriage had ever been illegal.
This is where Ken Tanabe enters the story. Although he was the son of an interracial couple who married shortly after the Loving decision, Tanabe had never heard of miscegenation laws until he stumbled across a reference to them when he was in his twenties. Shocked to discover the depth and breadth of America’s obsession with outlawing interracial marriage, Tanabe decided to make sure that no one would ever take the freedom to marry for granted again. In 2004, he founded LovingDay.org, a website designed to educate Americans about this painful history, to make Loving Day a holiday, and to promote its celebration. Among multiracial families, Loving Day was an instant hit. The 2007 celebration in New York City drew more than a thousand people. This year Loving Day celebrations will be held in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but also in Jonesboro, Georgia; Salem, Oregon, and Tokyo.
I hope they’ll all draw crowds. Until Loving v. Virginia, legal bans on interracial marriage had been a crucial aspect of American racism, race segregation, and white supremacy, so celebrating the moment when interracial marriage became legal is a fine idea. The images of Loving Day celebrations online at Loving Day.org offer hope that with enormous effort, even the worst, most entrenched discrimination can be overcome. And it seems especially fitting that Richard and Mildred Loving’s last name is such an appropriate symbolic fit for the budding holiday.
It ought to be noted, though, that this year’s Loving Day celebrations take place in the midst of another great struggle over marriage rights: the campaign for same-sex marriage. In the last several months, there have been remarkable victories in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa, and miserable defeats in California, with the passage and upholding of Proposition 8. As I write these words, 40 states and the federal government prohibit same-sex marriage. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will someday regard these bans as fundamentally wrong-headed, much as we now think of bans on interracial marriage. In the meantime, though, let’s put our hearts into celebrating Loving Day.