Robbins: How Loving vs Virginia dealt a major blow to segregation |

Robbins: How Loving vs Virginia dealt a major blow to segregation

This is the 13th part of an ongoing series on seminal cases in American law.

These days, we think nothing of it when we see an interracial couple. Sadly, it was not always so. in many states, interracial marriage was a crime until the Supremes weighed in with a decision in 1967. The Supreme Court case that changed this was the appropriately named case of Loving vs. Virginia.

Mildred Jeter was a woman of color. Her mate, Richard Loving, was white. Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were in love. And so they did what lovebirds do and married. They became the Loving couple. I know, I know — this sounds too perfect.

But all was not well in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

In 1958 — not so very long ago — the Lovings were sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other. Their marriage violated the Old Dominion state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. That insidious act criminalized marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored.”

The Lovings appealed their conviction to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which upheld it. They then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear their case.

Taking a step back …

Anti-miscegenation laws (that is, anti-racial mixing laws) in the United States had been in place in certain states since colonial days. In the early Reconstruction Era, Black Codes across the seven states of the deep South made intermarriage illegal. The new Republican legislatures in six states repealed the restrictive laws but after the Democrats returned to power, the restriction was reimposed.

A nettlesome concern was how to draw the line between black and white in a society in which many white men … oops … had children with their slaves. On one side of this Janus-headed coin, a person’s reputation as black or white was usually decisive in day-to-day affairs. On the other, most laws used a “one drop of blood” rule, which meant that one black ancestor made a person black in the eyes of the law. In 1967, 104 years after emancipation, 16 states still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books.

The couple met in high school in Central Point, Caroline County, Virginia.  When Mildred became pregnant at 18, Richard moved in with her family.   Although the county adhered to strict Jim Crow segregation laws, the facts in Central Point were different. In that small corner of Virginia had thrived a visible mixed-race community since the 19th century. Richard’s father worked for one of the wealthiest black men in the county for 25 years. Richard’s closest friends were black, including Mildred’s older brothers.

In order to evade the Racial Integrity Act, the couple traveled to Washington, D.C. to marry. When they returned to Central Point, an anonymous tip sent local law enforcement to their door. In the early morning hours of July 11, 1958, hoping to find them having sex (interracial sex was also illegal in Virginia), officers found the Lovings sleeping in their bed. Mildred pointed out their marriage certificate. They were told the certificate was not valid in Virginia.

The Lovings were charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to Virginia, and Section 20–59, which classified miscegenation as a felony, punishable by a prison sentence of between one and five years.

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pled guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended on condition that the couple leave Virginia and not return together for at least 25 years. After their conviction, the couple moved to the District of Columbia.

But that was not the end of it.

Righting a wrong

In 1964, frustrated by their inability to travel together to visit their families in Virginia, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union who assigned her two volunteer attorneys. The attorneys filed a motion on behalf of the Lovings in the Virginia Caroline County Circuit Court that requested the court to vacate the criminal judgments and set aside the Lovings’ sentences on the grounds that the Virginia miscegenation statutes ran counter to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

After waiting almost a year for a response to their motion, the ACLU attorneys brought a class-action suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. This prompted the county court judge in the case, Leon M. Bazile, to issue a ruling on the long-pending motion.  Echoing Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s 18th-century interpretation of race, Bazile wrote:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Ah … no.

Next, the Lovings appealed Judge Bazile’s decision on constitutional grounds to the Virginia Supreme Court. Justice Harry L. Carrico (later Chief Justice of the Court) wrote an opinion for the court upholding the constitutionality of the anti-miscegenation statutes. Justice Carrico argued that the Lovings’ case was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause because both the white and the non-white spouse were punished equally for the crime of miscegenation.

Still supported by the ACLU, the Lovings appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. And there, at last, the tide turned.

On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that overturned the Lovings’ Virginia criminal convictions and struck down anti-miscegenation laws. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that because the races of the people involved were the only factors determining whether or not they broke the law, the law was, therefore, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

After holding that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law violated the Equal Protection Clause, the Court went on to hold that the act also violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, because it deprived its people of a constitutionally protected right without due process of law.  The freedom to marry, the court ruled, is a fundamental right, and therefore depriving Americans of this liberty on an arbitrary basis such as race was unconstitutional.

Warren wrote, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the 14th Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”

Loving was one of many nails hammered into the coffin of racial discrimination in the 1960s.  

After the decision, the couple moved back to Central Point, built a house and had three children. Sadly, in 1975, Richard died at 41 when his car was struck by a drunk driver. The Lovings are buried side-by-side in Central Point. Their legacy of loving and tenacity survives them.

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