“Be it enacted by the general assembly of Virginia, That the State…prepare a form whereon the racial composition of any individual, as Caucasian, Negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay…may be certified by such individual…
“It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white…“
So declared Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which forbade marriage between interracial couples. Anti-interracial marriage laws were nothing new in Virginia, the state had some form of them in effect since the time of slavery (1600s). But this particular act was a direct consequence of the American eugenics movement of the early 1900s, which hoped to “improve the inborn qualities of a race” by way of immigration restrictions, anti-interracial marriage laws, forced sterilization, and even euthanasia programs to remove “defective genetic attributes” from the reproductive pool. It was this Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia, brought down with their famous court case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967, and with it helped put an end to state sponsored implementation of white supremacy.
Mildred Jeter, a skinny girl of African American and Native American descent, was born in 1939, six years after Richard Loving, who was of English and Irish ancestry. They both lived in Caroline County, Virginia, a place much friendlier towards racial mixing than other Southern communities of the time.
Mildred met Richard when she was eleven and he seventeen. She went to an all-black school, and he, having left his all-white high school after only a year, made a living as a construction worker. What started as a friendship eventually blossomed into love, and after Mildred became pregnant at age eighteen, they decided to get married.
Marrying in their home state of Virginia was impossible, so Mildred and Richard drove 90 miles north to Washington D.C. where interracial marriage was legal. Upon returning home the Lovings lived in peace for just a few weeks until in the middle of the night their house was raided by the local sheriff along with two deputies acting on a tip. The sheriff barged into the Loving’s bedroom at 2AM demanding to know of Richard,
“Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?”
“I am his wife,” Mildred answered.
Their marriage certificate hung on the wall.
“That’s no good here,” the sheriff proclaimed.
The Lovings were taken to jail. Richard was allowed to post bail the following day, but Mildred, despite being pregnant, was held longer. The Lovings were charged with violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, a felony crime carrying a one to five year jail term. During the hearing the presiding judge, Judge Leon Bazile, stated,
“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.”
The Lovings pled guilty to breaking Virginia’s anti-interracial marriage law and were given the minimum one year sentence. With the ruling came the stipulation that their sentence would be suspended if they left Virginia and did not return together for twenty five years. The Lovings agreed. They moved to Washington D.C., had three children, and lived there for five years, until the isolation from family and friends, as well as financial hardship, made them long to return to Virginia.
The year was 1963, and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Mildred, inspired by the movement, got in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union who agreed to take on the Lovings’ case and help them return home. There was only one problem, since the Lovings had pled guilty to breaking Virginia law, they had no right to appeal the original ruling. So they contacted Judge Leon Bazile and asked him to void his verdict on the basis that Virginia’s anti-interracial marriage law was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. He declined. The Lovings appealed, and the case went to Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals, but that court upheld Judge Bazile’s decision, stating that Virginia’s anti-interracial marriage law didn’t in fact violate the Fourteenth Amendment because both whites and non-whites were punished equally for the crime of interracial marriage.
But the Lovings didn’t give up. They appealed the Virginia court’s decision to the United States Supreme Court. The court, at the time headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren who also presided over Brown v. Board of Education, examined the case and overturned Virginia court’s decision.
“Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’”, Warren stated, “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…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.”
Interracial marriage was declared legal in Virginia and in the US as a whole. The Lovings, now legally married, were finally able to live in peace at home in Virginia.
Of Virginia’s anti-interracial marriage law in general, Justice Potter Stewart and Justice William O. Douglas, two of the associate Justices who were part of the Supreme Court’s ruling, stated,
“There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.”
Loving v. Virginia became one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important cases. The Lovings were hailed as heroes by their community and the country at large.
But when asked about their accomplishments in a Life magazine interview, Richard Loving humbly said,
“We have thought about other people, but we are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”