The solemn bond of matrimony was not enjoyed by slaves in the way we understand marriage today. Perpetually at the whim of their owner, the pairing of slaves for maximum child production was the general practice, especially in Antebellum Southern states. Allowing slaves to marry was sometimes a religious or moral concession, but often it was simple economic necessity that pushed two slaves together in wedlock. For their part, slave-owners ignorantly assumed most slaves would be grateful to be allowed to marry. It was thought that marriage would temper rebellious inclinations and dissuade runaways, two constant worries of the far outnumbered white slave-owners. Slaves however, especially the men, often resisted marrying another slave because of the anguish of having to helplessly witness their family members be sold off, whipped, raped, or even killed by malicious slave-owners.
After the Civil War and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, conditions for African-Americans remained dismal as Jim Crow laws and racist enforcement of those laws kept equity between the races from being realized. Indeed, a power no less than the United States Supreme Court helped maintain the gross unfairness of segregation and discrimination by ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that “separate but equal” societal accommodations for different races were somehow constitutional. Not restrictive enough for many in the same states that lost the war, the eugenically driven fears of inter-racial marriage and the resulting mixed race children prompted the creation of miscegenation laws that were designed to prohibit not only inter-racial marriage but inter-racial sexual relations as well. The transcripts of many cases and hearings from this period contain language more comparable to 1930’s German race propaganda than to the stuffy decorum of United States courtrooms and state capitols. Chief Justice Warren, delivering the opinion in Loving v. Virginia (1967), wrote the following of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia’s ruling under review, “… as stating the reasons supporting the validity of these laws. In Naim, the state court concluded that the State’s legitimate purposes were “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” and to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride,” obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy. Id. at 90, 87 S.E.2d at 756…”
Plaintiffs Mildred and Richard Loving had no interest in corrupting blood or breeding mongrels. They only wanted fairness. In 1958, as a couple legally married in Washington, D.C. but living in Virginia, they were arrested on spurious charges of “cohabiting as man and wife against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth”. Richard is white. Mildred is black.
It was against the law for them to live together in Virginia as man and wife based exclusively on the color of Mildred’s skin. In 1958 fifteen other, mostly Southern states had similar prohibitions which were immediately overturned by the historic ruling nine years later that bears their name. Mr. Loving is reported to have told his lawyer to convey to the Court, “Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” The decision was unanimous.
Race may one day be irrelevant. At least it should be irrelevant, though it’s hard to imagine the racists among us willfully ignoring generations of ingrained prejudices for an equality and justice that they do not need nor want. The explosion of white supremacy websites and militia groups since the historic election of President Obama is all the proof necessary to logically conclude that we still have much work to do. But the trend is for racial diversity to expand exponentially, with white citizens expected to become a minority in 2043, according to the U.S. Census. Although birth and death rates may hasten or delay the inevitable, the switch in status will likely be accompanied by turbulent social protests as well as violent reactions among the most extreme racists and hate groups.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving embodied the grace and conviction of so many civil rights leaders throughout history. They endured more than should be allowed in modern society, yet they remained modest and private. A movement is underway to have June 12th declared Loving Day and receive recognition as a National Holiday. Individuals can write President Obama directly, sign the petition here https://wh.gov/isdTY , or visit http://lovingday.org to see how to help. Greater attention to the case and to the Lovings especially will only empower the multicultural impulses that make us a stronger and more robust country. President Obama, when discussing the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, said the following: “As difficult and challenging this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. Doesn’t mean that we’re in a post-racial society, it doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Melia and Sasha and I talk to their friends…they’re better than we are, they’re better than we were on these issues”