The United States government has a long history of laws banning miscegenation, which is marriage or procreation between people of different races. Forty-one states have had laws in place prohibiting miscegenation. The Supreme Court had a history of upholding these bans. In Pace v. Alabama (1883), the Court upheld anti-miscegenation laws since they impacted Blacks and Whites “equally.” These laws persisted in many states through the 1950s. Virginia banned miscegenation in their Act to Preserve Racial Integrity in 1924. If a person violated the law, they could serve one to five years in prison.
In 1958, Richard Loving, a white construction worker, and Mildred Jeter, an African-American and Native-American woman, decided to marry. The longtime friends and Virginia natives went to Washington D.C., where interracial marriage was legal, and tied the knot. The couple returned to their Virginia home and five weeks later awoke to a local sheriff knocking down their door at two o’clock in the morning. Richard and Mildred were arrested and charged with violating Virginia law. The two pled guilty and were first sentenced to a year in prison. However, the judge then allowed them not to serve time if they agreed to leave Virginia for twenty-five years. The couple moved to D.C. and raised three kids together in exile. However, Mildred and Richard wanted to return to Virginia, the state they viewed as home. Mildred wrote to the United States Attorney General at the time, Robert F. Kennedy, and asked for legal assistance. Kennedy referred Mildred to the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, and the organization agreed to represent them in Court.
The attorneys from the ACLU argued that the law was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which insists that all citizens have due process and equal protection under the law. The man who represented Virginia, Robert McIlwaine III, compared the state statute to laws against incest and polygamy. The case rose to the Supreme Court, and the justices had to decide if the anti-miscegenation law in Virginia violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
In a unanimous decision, the Court found anti-miscegenation laws as violations of both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that distinctions based on race face “rigid scrutiny.” Since the Virginia law had no legitimate purpose other than discrimination, it was struck down. Justice Warren did not stop there. The Court also struck down all laws banning interracial marriage in the sixteen states still using them. Justice Warren stated that the freedom to marry or not marry resides in the individual, and applauded the institution of marriage as one of our basic civil rights and fundamental to survival. Warren stated that denial of this essential freedom based on race is “subversive” to “the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
After the ruling, Mr. and Mrs. Loving returned to Virginia with their three children. Sadly, six years later, Richard Loving was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Mildred survived the crash and lived to see her grandchildren, ultimately passing in 2008. June 12th, the date of the Loving decision, is known as “Loving Day” and is meant to be a day of celebration for interracial partners and families.
Loving is often hailed as a landmark case in the Civil Rights Era. The decision was a defeat for segregationists and Jim Crow law proponents. However, some states did not change their laws quickly. Alabama did not change its law regarding anti-miscegenation until 2000.
Today the perspective around interracial relationships is changing. While in the ‘90s, over sixty percent of white people said they would be opposed to a relative marrying a Black person, that number as of 2017 had shrunk to fourteen percent. The number of interracial marriages has also increased drastically, going from being only 3 percent of marriages in 1967 to being over 16 percent of U.S. marriages today.
The Loving decision paved the way for the law to view other marriages as valid under the law. The decision was cited in the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the nation.