This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court Case that ruled prohibitions on interracial marriages unconstitutional. The decision and the brave couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, who challenged the Virginia statute denying their union because he was deemed a white man and she, a black woman, deserve celebration. The couple had grown up together in a small rural town where racial tensions and segregation persisted, but were faded by familiarity. As adults, Richard and Mildred fell in love and chose to formalize their relationship. They took a trip to nearby Washington, DC. where they secured a marriage license. However, soon after returning to Virginia, one of 16 states, mostly in the American South, which held firm to its anti-miscegenation statute, an overly enthusiastic sheriff barged into the couple’s bedroom in the middle of the night and arrested them. After an uncomfortable stay in jail—a then-pregnant Mildred was detained longer than Richard—the couple were released. Ordered to depart the state for 25 years, the Lovings reluctantly relocated to Washington, DC where they would raise their children. Mildred, in particular, regretted city life and wished to return to rural Virginia. As much as their longing for home and family, the arguments and energy of the era’s black freedom struggle, and faith in the rightness of their course, persuaded the couple to seek the legal support of the ACLU and file a lawsuit. In 1967, a unanimous court ruled in favor of the Lovings, determining that anti-miscegenation statutes violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
The victory marked the end of anti-miscegenation statutes that had proliferated and persisted in the United States because Americans regularly romanced across color lines and those who depended upon those lines to protect their authority worked feverishly to reinforce them wherever and whenever possible. Within their respective North American empires, the Spanish and French had selectively discouraged certain types of marriages, but it was the British who most disdained and would actively restrict interracial marriages. This antipathy reflected both the settler nature of the British colonies—the British sought to populate the land with families who would clear forests, build farms, and facilitate trade—and a desire to protect racial slavery. The colony of Maryland debuted the first anti-miscegenation statute in 1684, banning marriages between free English women (presumed to be white) and black slaves. Seven years later, neighboring Virginia passed a more punitive and comprehensive limitation, criminalizing marriages between white women or men and blacks, mulattos, and Indians. Violators would suffer banishment or removal from the dominion. All southern and many northern colonies, including Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, would follow suit. Soon after the American Revolution, the movement to abolish slavery would prompt northern states to repeal anti-miscegenation statutes, but southern states, who worried about the collapse of segregation and white supremacy after the Civil War, recommitted to them.
As the United States added western territory by force and negotiation through the 19th century, Americans and anti-miscegenation statutes moved west, too. Refusing to legally recognize love between races proved an integral part of confirming the American conquest and incorporating new land. Thus, western states not only prevented white Americans from marrying African Americans and Native Americans, as had their counterparts in the Midwest and East Coast, but those of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino descent. The maturation and popularization of pseudo-scientific ideas about racial divisions within the human population at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries helped justify this violation of civil rights.
However, American couples regularly defied or circumvented the laws. Indeed, the triumph of the Lovings built upon the struggles of many other interracial couples who similarly formed intimate partnerships and defied the idea that individuals could be classified and divided by something as capricious as race. Among the most prominent of these forerunners were Andrea Perez and Sylvester Davis. This pair had met in 1940s Los Angeles. The son of black migrants from the south, Sylvester and Andrea, the daughter of Mexican immigrants took an immediate liking to one another. Unfortunately, as Andrea remembered, her father did not share her affections for Sylvester, worrying about the social and economic consequences of his daughter dating a black man in the United States. Although separated during World War II-Andrea worked at a local shipbuilding operation and Sylvester served in the United States Army-the couple rekindled their relationship and decided to marry after the war’s end. Soon following their marriage ceremony in a Catholic Church which honored their union, they asked for the legal help of Daniel Marshall, a leader of the Catholic Interracial Council. Like other individuals of Mexican descent, Andrea enjoyed the legal status of white, if not always the lived privileges of being white, and thus was in violation of California’s ban against marriages between whites and African or Asian Americans. Changing ideas about race accelerated by the era’s democratic rhetoric and the discovery of Nazi atrocities likely shaped the judge’s interpretation. In 1947, California became the first state whose highest court struck down an anti-miscegenation statute.
Without the particular love story of and battle waged by Richard and Mildred, a formal barrier to equality would have stood longer. Yet, we should also remember that the right to marital freedom was asserted by so many Americans. These men and women chose to love whom they loved despite state restrictions and thus became unexpected agitators in the long contest for equal rights in the United States.
Featured Image credit: US Supreme Court building in 2011. Picture by Architect of the Capitol, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.