Forty-five years and one day ago, mixed-race couples were still forbidden to marry in sixteen states. On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court finally affirmed their right to wed. Then, as with the issue of same-sex marriage now, religion was invoked to argue against such unions—but then, as now, religion was not a constitutional argument.
Mildred and Richard Loving, who grew up in the same town in Virginia, wanted to get married. But she was Black and American Indian, while he was white—and Virginia had tough anti-miscegenation laws. One read, in part, “If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.”
Faced with these prohibitions, the Lovings got married in Washington, D.C. in June of 1958. When they returned home, they were arrested, jailed, and convicted of felonies. The judge in the case 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 marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” (This ‘religious’ argument does not address what God had in mind when the races were allowed to find their way to each other’s continents.)
The judge agreed to suspend their sentences if the couple would leave the state, so Richard and Mildred returned to Washington. In 1963, they consulted with the ACLU about their situation and began the ordeal of obtaining a ruling on the constitutionality of Virginia’s laws. Their goal was simply to return home in safety. In 1965, they lost their appeal before the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, which stated that the State had a legitimate purpose in trying “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” and preventing “the corruption of blood.”
In 1967, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which did deliver the ruling that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Warren, the Court affirmed that, “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 Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.” While this conclusion might seem obvious to us today, the state of Alabama didn’t bother to repeal its anti-miscegenation law until this century—the year 2000.
The Supreme Court’s references to marriage as a basic civil right and a fundamental freedom, and to the principle of equality embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment, are at the heart of the argument for same-sex marriage. The Lovings had no idea that their case would lead to such affirmations—of civil rights and freedom of choice—for people across the country. However, as the issue wends its way through the courts, there can be no doubt that every victory for marriage equality owes a debt to the courage of Richard and Mildred Loving.