When a Marriage Was Illegal Because of Race

Mildred Dolores Jeter and Richard Perry Loving fell in love. They were both born and raised in the state of Virginia. Mildred was black and Richard was white. Their love was a crime in Virginia.

In 1958, Mildred discovered she was pregnant. She and Richard travelled to Washington DC and got married. They did not marry in Virginia, because marriages between a white person and a non-white person were illegal. (The law only forbade white people from marrying non-white people. There was no law against other racial inter marriages.)

Shortly after they married, the local police department received a “tip” about illegal sexual relations between a black woman and a white man. The police raided their home during the night, hoping to find them engaging in sexual relations – a crime in itself. The couple were merely sleeping, and could not be charged with that crime.

Mildred showed the police their marriage license. The police informed them that the license was not legal in the state of Virginia, and arrested them under the state’s miscegenation laws. Their “crime” was a felony subject to five years in prison!

Mildred and Richard pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to a year in prison. Upon completion of their sentence, they were banished from Virginia and not allowed to return to the state for 25 years. They served their sentences and moved to Washington DC.

By 1964, Mildred was frustrated with their inability to visit family in Virginia. She wrote a letter to then US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy suggested they contact the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], and they did. The ACLU took up their cause and a motion on behalf of the Lovings in the Virginia Caroline County Circuit Court, that requested the court to vacate the criminal judgments and set aside the Lovings' sentences on the grounds that the Virginia miscegenation statutes ran counter to the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution: the equal protection clause. The case went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

The State of Virginia argued before the Supreme Court that the law was fair, because it punished both white and other “coloreds” people equally.

The US Supreme Court unanimously found for the Lovings. Chief Justice Earl Warren writing:

“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 discrimination. 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…

…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.”

In a concurring opinion Justice Potter Stewart wrote: "it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor."

Sadly, in many southern states, the miscegenation laws remained on the books for many years, even though they were not enforceable.

Categories: Family Law
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