Loving v. Virginia: An anniversary for interracial marriage

Students learn about the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision that overturned laws banning interracial marriage, and consider the legacy of that decision today, 50 years on.   

To the Teacher

The summer of 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned laws banning interracial marriage in the United States. This lesson consists of two readings. The first reading provides historical background on the case and details its path to the Supreme Court. The second reading examines its lasting impact. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading 1:
Loving v. Virginia: Jim Crow and Interracial Marriage

In 1958, Mildred Loving, a pregnant 18–year–old black woman, and Richard Loving, a 24–year–old white man, were married in Washington, DC. In 1958, the rigid system of Jim Crow racial segregation was enforced in the Southern United States, including the Lovings’ home state of Virginia. While Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery and Congress subsequently passed amendments to the Constitution mandating equal protection under the law and full voting rights for African Americans, in practice racial divisions and discrimination remained the order of the day.
"Jim Crow" was a system of legalized discrimination: African Americans were regularly denied the right to vote, were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms, and they were made to attend separate, poorly funded schools. African Americans faced a reign of terror that included violence and lynchings targeting those who defied racial codes.
It may be hard to fathom now, but as recently as 50 years ago, Jim Crow included statutes prohibiting "miscegenation," or interracial relationships. In an April 4, 2004 article for the History News Network, historian Peggy Pascoe detailed the evolution of these laws:

As Reconstruction collapsed in the late 1870s, legislators, policymakers, and, above all, judges began to marshal the arguments they needed to justify the reinstatement—and  subsequent expansion—of miscegenation law.’
Here are four of the arguments they used:
1) First, judges claimed that marriage belonged under the control of the states rather than the federal government.
2) Second, they began to define and label all interracial relationships (even longstanding, deeply committed ones) as illicit sex rather than marriage.
3) Third, they insisted that interracial marriage was contrary to God's will, and
4) Fourth, they declared, over and over again, that interracial marriage was somehow "unnatural."
The fifth, and final, argument judges would use to justify miscegenation law was undoubtedly the most important; it used these claims that interracial marriage was unnatural and immoral to find a way around the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of "equal protection under the laws." How did judges do this? They insisted that because miscegenation laws punished both the black and white partners to an interracial marriage, they affected blacks and whites "equally." This argument, which is usually called the equal application claim, was hammered out in state supreme courts in the late 1870s, endorsed by the United States Supreme Court in 1882, and would be repeated by judges for the next 85 years...
Between 1880 and 1950, the regime of miscegenation law was at the height of its power. The laws were in effect in thirty states––every Southern state, the vast majority of western states, and several states on the border, like Indiana. Those states that didn't have miscegenation laws on their books, mostly in the Northeast, boasted that they didn't need to, because opposition to interracial marriage was by then so deeply rooted that new laws were simply unnecessary.

It was in this context that, when the Lovings returned to their home in Virginia, they were arrested and charged with a felony under the state’s anti–miscegenation laws. In a May 6, 2006 article for the New York Times, journalist Douglas Martin detailed the Lovings’ arrest and conviction:

By their own widely reported accounts, Mrs. Loving and her husband, Richard, were in bed in their modest house in Central Point in the early morning of July 11, 1958, five weeks after their wedding, when the county sheriff and two deputies, acting on an anonymous tip, burst into their bedroom and shined flashlights in their eyes. A threatening voice demanded, "Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?"
Mrs. Loving answered, "I’m his wife."
Mr. Loving pointed to the couple’s marriage certificate hung on the bedroom wall. The sheriff responded, "That’s no good here."
The certificate was from Washington, D.C., and under Virginia law, a marriage between people of different races performed outside Virginia was as invalid as one done in Virginia. At the time, it was one of 24 states that barred marriages between races.
After Mr. Loving spent a night in jail and his wife several more, the couple pleaded guilty to violating the Virginia law, the Racial Integrity Act. Under a plea bargain, their one–year prison sentences were suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return together or at the same time for 25 years.
Judge Leon M. Bazile, in language Chief Justice Warren would recall, said that if God had meant for whites and blacks to mix, he would have not placed them on different continents. Judge Bazile reminded the defendants that "as long as you live you will be known as a felon." 

The Lovings eventually grew frustrated with the terms of their sentence and in 1964, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Lovings’ attorneys appealed the conviction on the grounds that Virginia’s anti–miscegenation law violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. Although Virginia’s court upheld their convictions, the Lovings made their final appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, which in a unanimous decision on June 12, 1967, ruled that Virginia’s—and thus all—laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the Opinion of the Court: 

There can be no question but that Virginia's miscegenation statutes rest solely upon distinctions drawn according to race.... 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. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause....
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 Loving decision became a landmark moment in the Civil Rights movement, with lasting implications that can still be felt today.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what was Jim Crow? How was this system of segregation maintained?
  3. According to the reading, what arguments did defenders of Jim Crow use to justify anti–miscegenation laws? What were some the flaws in their arguments?
  4. Can you think of any other major Supreme Court cases that were decided during the 1950s and 1960s––a period sometimes referred to as the Civil Rights era? What was their significance?a



Reading 2:
Loving’s Legacy, 50 Years Later

Beyond overturning anti–miscegenation laws across the South, the Loving decision played an important role in gradually shifting public opinion around interracial relationships in the years that followed.
Although only 17 Southern states had formal laws barring interracial marriages at the time of the Loving decision, public opinion throughout the country was largely against the idea of interracial marriage. Loving represented a landmark moment in the U.S. for ending bans against interracial marriage; nevertheless, attitudes about interracial marriage took time to shift.
Even now, there are some people who do not support interracial marriage.  To cite one example from 2016: Some people responded negatively to an Old Navy advertisement depicting an interracial family. As Marie Solis, staff writer for Mic.com wrote in a December 30, 2016 article:

As the 2016 movie Loving seeks to remind us, it's been nearly 50 years since the Supreme Court outlawed bans on interracial marriage. Of course, that doesn't mean bigots are OK with it.
This time, racists took aim at an Old Navy ad showing a family of four: a black father, white mother and two biracial children, all outfitted in winter wear for the retailer's "frost–free" clothing line.
While most viewers might see only a wholesome ad, racists on Twitter saw a family of race traitors.
Twitter user @MontyDraxel replied with two images of all–white families superimposed with the phrase "When you're white there is no upgrade. Don't mix."....
Another person called the ad "disgusting" and asked Old Navy why it was trying to "force" black–white intermarriage onto people. "The kids come out looking like neither and really confused!" he wrote. ...
Racists can stay mad, as far as Old Navy is concerned.
An Old Navy spokesperson told Fortune that the retailer is proud of its message of "diversity and inclusion."

Those who oppose interracial marriage are increasingly in the minority. Today, public approval for interracial marriage has reached an all–time high, and among young people approval is the highest. As pollster Frank Newport reported for Gallup in a July 25, 2013 article, interracial marriages are widely approved of by Americans today. Indeed, approval for interracial marriages has shifted so drastically since the Lovings were arrested for their marriage in 1958 that it would likely be hard for many younger Americans to believe that not too long ago, such marriages were widely seen as taboo. The Loving lawsuit was part of wider Civil Rights movement that resulted in this sea change in public attitudes.
Newport noted: 

Continuing to represent one of the largest shifts of public opinion in Gallup history, 87% of Americans now favor marriage between blacks and whites, up from 4% in 1958...
Approval of marriages between blacks and whites is up one percentage point from 2011, when this attitude was last measured. Approval has generally increased in a linear fashion from Gallup's first measure in 1958, reaching the majority threshold in 1997, and crossing the three–quarters line in 2004. Eleven percent of Americans today say they disapprove of black–white marriage, compared with 94% who disapproved in 1958.
Blacks' approval of black–white marriage (96%) is now nearly universal, while whites' approval is 12 percentage points lower, at 84%. Blacks' approval has consistently been higher than whites' over the decades, although attitudes among both racial groups have generally moved in a parallel manner since 1968 –– when Gallup first was able to report reliable estimates of each group's opinion. The gap between black approval and white approval in recent years has been smaller than it was prior to 1997.

This wider public tolerance for relationships that in previous generations were seen as taboo extends not just across racial lines, but also to same–sex couples. Over the past few decades, a series of court decisions, ballot measures, and state laws served as flash points in a debate about whether same–sex couples would have the right to marry. Gradually, an increasing number of states started to allow same–sex marriage and in June of 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same–sex marriages should be legal.
The court’s decision drew heavily on the Loving ruling as a precedent. As reporter Markus Schmidt wrote in a May 23, 2015 article for the Richmond Times–Dispatch:

To Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, the Lovings’ fight for legal recognition of their marriage helped "broaden our understanding" of equality in a way that still resonates today.
"In our recent same–sex marriage equality case, our opponents made the exact same arguments that were used to block the Lovings’ marriage," Herring said in an email Friday. "But the courts found in both cases that marriage is a fundamental right, and people should be free to marry the person they love."...
Mildred Loving, a year before her death in 2008, expressed support for same–sex marriage in an essay she wrote on the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia.
"I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry," she wrote. "Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights."
And Cohen, the attorney who helped the Lovings obtain legal recognition of their marriage, said he believed the decision of the lower courts to strike down state bans on gay marriage was in the spirit of the Loving case.
"I thought it was correct and late, but better late than never," he said.

 In the end, the Loving decision did not just to help change public opinion about interracial relationships, making them a more normal part of American life; the decision ultimately helped to legalize same–sex marriages and to broaden tolerance more generally.


For Discussion:

  1.  How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Some readers today might be startled to learn that, in 1958, 94% of Americans expressed disapproval for interracial relationships. This included large majorities in Northern states and also across racial groups. What do you think about this statistic?
  3. The reading cites the example of some negative reactions to a recent Old Navy ad depicting an interracial relationship. Some argue that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed bigoted comments to reach a wider audience. What do you think? Do you think that negative comments about the Old Navy ad reflect a significant trend, or are they merely the views of a few extreme social media commenters?
  4. While the Loving decision had an undeniable impact on public opinion toward interracial marriage, it was not the only factor. Can you think of any other factors that helped to reshape public opinion around interracial marriage?
  5. Although interracial marriages have become much more widely accepted in the United States since the Loving decision, a small number of people continue to frown upon them. Do you think that interracial couples continue to face discrimination or disapproval? What forms does this take?
  6. The Loving decision established what is called a legal precedent for future Supreme Court decisions. According to the reading, how did this ruling affect the court’s later decision on same–sex marriage?