The Fight for the Right to Marry: The Loving v. Virginia Case

February is Black History Month. Visit our website for information on related resources and virtual events. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO.

Civil rights encompasses a broad range of activities that engage citizens of all backgrounds—the right to vote, to lawfully assemble, to petition the government, to be judged equally before the law, and to express oneself without censorship. Civil rights and liberties do not end there though, as the right to marry whom we wish has been debated in courts for decades. Jim Crow laws throughout the American South banned inter-racial marriages alongside state laws defining Black ancestry. In 1967, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision on civil rights on that very topic: the famous Loving v. Virginia case. 

Members of the Inter-racial Marriage Club protesting bans on inter-racial unions and advocating for desegregated homes, 1963. (National Archives, Records of the United States Information Agency)

During the Reconstruction period, Virginia implemented a variety of “black codes” aimed at disenfranchising and segregating facilities between Blacks and Whites. Coinciding with these codes were anti-miscegenation laws preventing inter-racial marriages. States defined those with Black heritage by searching for Black ancestors; if one person was identified in their family history as Black, then all descendants were labeled the same during litigation. 

Richard and Mildred Loving (née Jeter) were from Central Point, Virginia. They went to the same schools and knew each other for most of their lives. The county operated under strict Jim Crow laws, but Central Point was seen as a cordial, mixed-race community. Richard and Mildred fell in love during high school, and on June 2, 1958, they were married in Washington, DC. Their troubles began not long after returning home. 

Richard and Mildred’s marriage certificate, 6/2/1958. (National Archives Identifier 17412479)

Under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 (RIA), inter-racial marriages were illegal and unrecognized by the state. The law arose from a eugenics and racist propaganda movement aimed at keeping Whites and Blacks segregated. On July 11, 1958, Caroline County issued an arrest warrant for Richard Loving for violating the RIA. A warrant for Mildred Loving was issued soon after. Both were arrested, and on January 6, 1959, they were given a suspended sentence of a year in prison but were allowed to relocate to Washington, DC, on the condition they not return for 25 years or risk imprisonment. 

By 1964, the Lovings decided to appeal their conviction and wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who referred them to the ACLU. Two attorneys, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, volunteered to take their case and petitioned the county circuit court to drop the sentence on the basis of the 14th Amendment

Simultaneously, Cohen and Hirschkop filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia, but before this could move forward, county judge Leon Bazile denied the motion to vacate the Lovings’ sentence. The Lovings then moved on to petition the Virginia Supreme Court, where their motion was denied and returned to the appellate courts. 

Court cases on the subject of inter-racial marriages occurred before the Lovings, many of which upheld the notion that such marriages were invalid based on the issue of race. Some claimed that since both parties were equally punished, the 14th Amendment was not violated at all. 

The repeated losses did not dissuade the Lovings or their attorneys from fighting their cause. The final test arrived in May 1966, when Cohen and Hirschkop filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1948, the Supreme Court of California ruled in the Perez v. Sharp case that banning inter-racial marriages was in fact unconstitutional. California was the first state to ban anti-miscegenation law, and the Lovings cited this for their case. Cohen and Hirschkop argued that the anti-miscegenation laws violated due process and equal protection because racial segregation was at its heart. 

On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of the Lovings. Their 14th Amendment rights were indeed violated, including the right to due process and equal protection under the law. Chief Justice Earl Warren authorized the court’s opinion, stating:

“the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Loving v. Virginia Appeal, 5/27/1966. (National Archives Identifier 7873520)

Following this decision, anti-miscegenation laws that remained on the books in several states became impossible to enforce with the Supreme Court’s opinion upholding inter-racial marriage. The reported number of inter-racial marriages in the American South increased steadily in the years after Loving v. Virginia, and the decision is routinely cited as a landmark court case in the fight for racial equality in the United States.

For more information read the Rediscovering Black History blog post, “Virginia is for the Lovings.” 

2 thoughts on “The Fight for the Right to Marry: The Loving v. Virginia Case

  1. From 1955 to 1959 I was a court reporter and legal assistant in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed most of the time overseas on Okinawa, Taiwan and Japan. During that era part of my duties was to advise Marines who wanted to marry Japanese or other “indigenous personnel” as the military described citizens of those countries, of the laws of their home state regarding laws of miscegenation as racially mixed marriages were delineated. This many years later, my memory is a little hazy on some details. My recollection at this time is that there were approximately 13 or 14 states that had laws regarding interracial marriage.

    There were two classes of such laws. One was called passive. It didn’t allow such marriages to take place within the state but if the marriage had taken place in a state where such marriage was legal, then the marriage was valid in the passive stare.

    The other classes was active such as we see in in the Loving case wherein all such marriages, including cohabitation were actually criminal offenses and could and were prosecuted. It was interesting. Every state with such laws forbad intermarriage between whites and Indians. States in the south forbad intermarriage between whites and Negros but said nothing about marriage between whites and Asians. Western states, including California said nothing about marriage between whites and Negros but forbad marriage between whites and Asians. This is just an overview. The laws were as varied as the states that had them. It wasn’t until the Perez case that the California Supreme court struck down miscegenation laws and it became legal for whites to marry Asians in California.

    I use the term “Negro” although it has gone out of fashion because that was the wording of the statutes and not to give offense to any individual. The same applies to the term “miscegenation” which I always found to be an ugly word in the English language.

    Loving vs. Virginia put such law where they should have been, in the dustbin of history.

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