In 1967, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously struck down Virginia’s miscegenation laws that prevented marriages between white people and people of color. The case centered around Mildred and Richard Loving (yes, that really was their last name), a white man and a woman of mixed black and native American heritage. Both residents of Virginia, the couple eloped in Washington, DC, where their union was legal, but were imprisoned shortly after their return to Virginia for breaking the law. In lieu of spending many years in prison, though, the couple left their pastoral life in Virginia and took up residence in the city of Washington, DC. There, they enlisted the help of young ACLU attorneys Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop to argue that the law preventing them from living as husband and wife in VA was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court heard arguments and ruled in favor of the Lovings, who lived in harmony with their three children until Richard was killed by a drunk driver.
This June marks 50 years since the last of the miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional, and while the reasons we celebrate this landmark ruling are many, the Loving case marks only progress, not completion, on a number of fronts.
Firstly, the fourteenth amendment was not the immediate cure-all it was intended to be, and a lot of local activists fought tooth and nail for its enforcement and for the passage and enforcement of its corollary, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. People from all walks of life, all races, and innumerable socioeconomic backgrounds started in church basements to peacefully protest Jim Crow laws and strategize about the best way to topple them. Grassroots organization proved a powerful asset to solving problems first on a local level, and then on a national scale.
Secondly, “miscegenation laws” is a kinder way to pronounce “eugenics.” Bernard Cohen insightfully argued that Virginia’s laws were not, in fact, meant to prevent mixing among all races. The state prohibited only marriage between white people and non-white people, but not a parallel prohibition against marriage between black and non-black people, or Asian and non-Asian people. Darwinian logic was being widely and grossly misapplied to studies of human intelligence, which confidently made synonyms of “white” and “intelligent.” While the laws cementing these ideas into practice have been removed, the a lingering perception occasionally appears in decisions about school funding and hidden biases based on the perceived race or nationality of a name on a resume.
Mildred Loving also knew the power of a story and a letter. Desperate to return to Virginia, Mildred penned a letter to then acting attorney general Robert Kennedy explaining the problem she and her lawfully wedded husband faced and asked for help. Kennedy directed the Lovings to the ACLU, who took the case up to the Supreme Court. With the advent of social media and the ease of spreading images and videos, the power of a well-told story to pull at the heartstrings of an issue has yet to be matched.
According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, nearly one in six US marriages involves some race-mixing, and while it appears that attitudes towards interracial marriages have widely turned, it’s the job of younger generations to goad older generations on board. News outlets have shared stories of interracial couples from 60 years ago to 10 years ago whose parents tried to talk each side out of the union independently for reasons including reputation, the children’s racial identities, and cultural acceptance.
Over and over, it’s the young people in love who have harnessed their passion and the tools at their disposal to turn the opinion of the public and the generations above them in their favor. From the Loving decisions to today’s civil rights issues, average citizens have to harness what they have at their disposal to push for change.