What the Supreme Court’s interracial marriage decision 45 years ago means to me
W. H. Auden was too right when he wrote in the poem “O Tell Me the Truth About Love” that when love comes, “it comes without warning.”
Sixteen years ago, I fell in love with the woman who would eventually be — and still is — my wife. At that moment, I wasn’t thinking of Richard and Mildred Loving or the farcical union of eugenics with out-of-context biblical texts to inform ideas of race and marriage.
No, this young man from St. Louis fell in love one June night in Madison, Wis., while eating pasta, sipping an inexpensive, but nice red wine, with Coltrane and Ellington in the background, while trading quotes from “Dr. Strangelove” with this cool young woman from central Wisconsin.
On Sept. 26, we will have been married for 14 years. That day in 1998, I didn’t think about anti-miscegenation laws (Wisconsin never had one), or worry about where we could or couldn’t live or fathom the possibility of the sheriff bursting into our apartment and pulling us apart. But Richard and Mildred Loving weren’t so lucky.
They were married in June 1958 not in their native Virginia, where their interracial union was illegal, but 80 miles away in Washington, D.C.
Upon returning home, they were arrested in their bedroom. On Jan. 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to two sections of Virginia law, one that prohibited interracial couples from marrying outside of state and returning, and the other that held miscegenation to be a felony. They sentence was suspended if the couple agreed to move out of Virginia for 25 years. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared that God separated the races because “he did not intend for the races to mix.”
In 1963, the Lovings and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion to vacate the judgment on the grounds that it violated the 14th Amendment. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously and emphatically backed the Lovings’ motion.
“The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain white supremacy,” the court stated. “There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”
The Supreme Court’s landmark Loving v Virginia upended the laws against interracial marriage in all the Southern states, with the addition of West Virginia, Missouri and Oklahoma.
That decision came down 45 years ago, on June 12, 1967 — a historic day not just for interracial couples but for all Americans. It set the precedent for constitutionally protecting gay marriage.
Mildred, whose husband died in 1975, understood this. In 2007, she delivered a speech titled “Loving for All” for the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision:
“I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
For my little family, that decision secured our right to exist. And it has given hope to millions of families like ours — and millions more to come.
Fred McKissack is a writer based in Fort Wayne, Ind. His latest book is the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nate Love” (Chronicle, 2012). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.