Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia. One would be forgiven for not knowing what this decision is, since it has been largely forgotten. Anti-gay marriage Senator and prostitution enthusiast David Vitter was asked his opinion on Loving v. Virginia a few years back and stated he did not know what the decision was. Vitter, it ought to be pointed out, is a former lawyer and a law school graduate. Of course, when it was explained to Vitter that the decision had struck down state bans on interracial marriage, the Senator said he did not know whether he favored it, indicating that he might be stuck in the year 1952. Yet Loving v. Virginia is a decision that every school student should be aware of. Interracial marriage bans were some of the first racially discriminatory laws enacted in the United States. In fact, they predated the foundation of the United States government, with the first ones being enacted by colonial governments in the late 1600s. Interestingly, most laws passed by American colonies had some sort of legal precedent in Britain. Interracial marriage bans, however, did not. Even when Britain was a leader in the African Slave Trade, interracial marriage was never outlawed there. The closest thing to a precedent in British legal history that could be established for American bans on interracial marriage was the fact that a British noblewoman had been prevented from marrying one of her servants.
The strongest opposition to interracial marriage bans came, not surprisingly, from abolitionists. Many abolitionists, such as Wendell Phillips, William Wells Brown, Lydia Maria Child, and William Lloyd Garrison bravely asserted that interracial marriage was neither unnatural nor immoral and that government had no right to stigmatize interracial couples. Still, abolitionists were only a small minority of the white public, even in the North. Supporters of slavery used the possibility of interracial marriage to try and scare the public into opposing any antislavery policies. During Abraham Lincoln’s bid for reelection, two Democrats named George Croly and George Wakeman published a fake pamphlet seemingly written by a supporter of interracial marriage and urging the Republican Party to put a pro-interracial marriage plank in its platform. The attempt was to play on public opposition to interracial marriage by making it appear that the GOP supported interracial marriage–eerily similar to Karl Rove’s attempt to exploit public opposition to gay marriage in order to help George W. Bush get reelected 140 years later. A few of the Radical Republican politicians, such as Charles Sumner, publicly supported interracial marriage, but most Republican politicians were terrified to appear supportive. Interracial marriage was so stigmatized by the American public that when Republicans attempted to pass the 14th Amendment after the Civil War, an amendment which mandated equality under the law for all Americans regardless of race, some of the most prominent politicians who supported the amendment promised that it would not interfere with anti-interracial marriage laws. “If the negro is denied the right to marry a white person, [and] the white person is equally denied the right to marry the negro[,] I see no discrimination against either,” said Lyman Trumbull (R-IL), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. When the Supreme Court ruled in its 1883 decision, Pace v. Alabama, that interracial marriage bans did not violate the 14th Amendment, every judge assented, including John Marshall Harlan, the man who became famous for being the lone judge to dissent when the Supreme Court upheld the concept of “separate but equal” in public accommodations in Plessy v. Ferguson.
While interracial marriage was legal in all of the Northeast, much of the Midwest, New Mexico, and Washington State by the end of the 1800s, it was illegal in most of the rest of the country until the second half of the 20th century. When African American singer and actress, Lena Horne, married a white man named Lennie Hayton in 1947, the marriage had to take place in Paris due to the fact that interracial marriages were still legally invalid in California. The extent to which interracial marriage bans were deeply rooted in America was demonstrated by the fact that they were the last of the Jim Crow laws to be repealed. (The Fair Housing Act, which addressed private sector, as opposed to government discrimination, was passed a year after interracial marriage was legalized nationwide and marked the final step in the march toward equal rights under the law for racial minorities. Racism, however, remains a serious problem.) When the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed, interracial marriage was still illegal in every Southern state. And indeed, it would be the judges of the Supreme Court, unbound by the fears of losing reelection campaigns, who would go where the majority of Congress feared to tread and legalize interracial marriage in 1967, at the behest of the ACLU. The organization represented Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia who had taken their case to the ACLU at the advice of Robert F. Kennedy. In an interesting twist, the decision was unanimous, just as the court’s 1883 upholding interracial marriage bans had been unanimous.
The decision is significant not only due to the gross inhumanity and immorality of laws banning interracial marriage but also because it was a bookend. Until June 12, 1967, nonwhites were discriminated against by state governments as a matter of public policy. At the beginning of 1967, Southern states could no longer legally require institutions like restaurants, public transportation, or schools to be legally segregated. To be sure, racial discrimination continues to this day, and states were still attempting to obstruct court decisions and federal laws on desegregation in 1967, but the fact remains that interracial marriage bans were the only Jim Crow laws still legally valid. Loving v. Virginia changed that. It marked the end of laws mandating racial discrimination. This decision must be rescued from the abyss of memory and be heralded for the great triumph of freedom that it was.