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.
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.
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.”
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.”