Today in D.C. History: Interracial Couple’s Marriage in the District Sparks Judicial Battle
On June 12, 1958, a marriage consecrated in the District paved the way for one of the most important rulings on marriage, Loving v. Virginia, to be handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were married in D.C. and arrested upon their return home to Virginia's Caroline County. The grounds for arrest: Richard was white, while Mildred came from black and Native American roots.
Their marriage violated Virginia laws designed to prevent "the corruption of blood" and "a mongrel breed of citizens,” as stated in the 1955 Virginia case Naim v. Naim.
Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced the Lovings to a year in prison, with the option of having that jail term suspended if they both left the state for 25 years. Bazile wrote in his opinion: “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 chose banishment over jail time and moved back to the District. As profiled in the new documentary, The Loving Story, the rural couple's time in urban D.C. was not a happy one. Fed up and put out, they filed suit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Nearly a decade later, on June 12, 1967, their case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state of Virginia argued that its law complied with the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, because it could be applied equally to all races. (The clause prohibits states to "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.") The Old Dominion was not alone; at the time, 15 other states, mostly in the South, prohibited interracial marriages.
The court ruled unanimously in the Lovings' favor, deeming the Virginia law and others like it unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in his opinion: "The freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides within the individual and cannot be infringed on by the State."
In Mildred Jeter Loving’s 2008 obituary, The Washington Post wrote that she had once said: "The preacher at my church classified me with Rosa Parks. I don't feel like that. Not at all. What happened, we really didn't intend for it to happen. What we wanted, we wanted to come home."
Loving v. Virginia became a landmark case, and these days, one that often comes up in the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage. On June 12, people across the country celebrate the informal holiday, appropriately named “Loving Day,” in honor of the court’s decision to erase one of the last lines of segregation. Today, one in seven new marriages are interracial or interethnic, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the latest census data. Thanks to the trailblazing couple's wedding in D.C., this year marks the country’s 44th anniversary of the legalization of interracial marriages.
Photo by Flickr user Nathan Laurell using an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license