Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Interracial Loving in black and white

Mildred and Richard Loving, January 26, 1965.
On this day when people in Indiana and North Carolina are choosing between the Democratic candidates for president, one of whom is the offspring of an interracial union, it's mind-boggling to think that just over 40 years ago, marriages like that which produced Sen. Barack Obama were illegal in many states, including North Carolina where voters are going to the polls.

But all that was changed in 1967 because of two quiet and courageous people who fought for their love by fighting an unjust law, Richard and Mildred Loving of Virginia. Their desire to have their marriage recognized in the eyes of the law in native state led them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which struck down all anti-miscegenation laws in the nation.

Mildred Jeter Loving, an African-American, died at 68 last week. Her husband was killed in 1975 by a drunken driver. But she and he will forever have a place in history as the Loving family in ironically perfect legal citation Loving v. Virginia.

A humble woman by all accounts, Loving didn't see herself as a hero akin to Rosa Parks. But she and her husband started something that hasn't ended, for champions of same-sex marriage view the Lovings as a model.

The Washington Post has a very good piece today that gives a sense of the bizarreness of the laws that banned interracial marriages and the contorted lengths to which their defenders went.
That wasn't true in 1958, when then-17-year-old Mildred Jeter and her childhood sweetheart, Richard Loving, a 23-year-old white construction worker, drove 90 miles north to marry in the District. Pretty and slender, she was known by her nickname, "Bean," and she was already pregnant with the first of their three children.

Loving later said she didn't realize that it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to wed, although her husband might have. "I think he thought [if] we were married, they couldn't bother us," she said.

Nevertheless, when they returned to Central Point, Va., between Richmond and Spotsylvania, to set up their home, someone called the law.

Caroline County Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks rousted them from their bed at 2 a.m. in July 1958 and told them the District's marriage certificate was no good in Virginia. He took them to jail and charged them with unlawful cohabitation. They pleaded guilty, and Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced them to a year's imprisonment, to be suspended if they left the state for the next 25 years.

"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," Bazile ruled.

The Lovings moved to Washington in 1959 and lived with one of her cousins on Neale Street NE. They didn't like urban life and yearned to return to their rural roots.

Then the story goes on to mention this interesting fact:

Five years later, while visiting her mother, they were arrested again for traveling together. Loving, who had been following the 1964 civil rights legislation, wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to find out if the new law would allow the couple to travel freely. The couple was referred to the American Civil Liberties Union and assigned an attorney, Bernard S. Cohen. "It was a terrible time in America," said Cohen, who was at Loving's home when she died. "Racism was ripe and this was the last de jure vestige of racism -- there was a lot of de facto racism, but this law was . . . the last on-the-books manifestation of slavery in America."

What's interesting about that is that RFK's Justice Dept. referred the woman to the ACLU. What was that about? Was that a decision made by some low-level person in the department or was it made by a higher up for political reasons, someone who wanted to avoid further antagonizing southern voters during a presidential election year?

In any event, what remarkable history Mildred and Richard Loving set in motion. They will be remembered, especially by efforts like Loving Day, a celebration of legalized interracial marriage that is observed by some every year on or around June 12, the day high court handed down its momentous decision.

1 comment:

cy thompson said...

Wow, what a factual, positive, inspiring article. Thank you for sharing. Perhaps things are not as bad as I thought.