The Loving v. Virginia Case in Historical Perspective


Mildred Loving always insisted she was no civil rights pioneer, but Loving. v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that bears her name, established the legal right to interracial marriage across the United States. In memory of Mildred Loving, who died on May 2, 2008, University of Oregon historian Peggy Pascoe, author of the new book, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America , discusses the many meanings of Loving v. Virginia.

BookWhen Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter decided to get married in June 1958, laws banning interracial marriage had been in effect for nearly three centuries. The colonies of Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts had banned intermarriage in 1664, 1691, and 1705. After the American Revolution, states passed similar laws. During the Civil War, interracial marriage acquired a new name–“miscegenation”-and miscegenation laws became the foundation for the system of racial segregation in railroads, schools, parks, and cemeteries that prevailed into the 1960s. When this regime was at its height, 30 states banned interracial marriage, many of them prohibiting whites from marrying Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and American Indians as well as blacks. Judges justified these laws by insisting that interracial marriage was somehow “unnatural,” a claim that became so pervasive that by 1958, 94 percent of Americans told pollsters they opposed interracial marriage. Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter had grown up in Central Point, Virginia, a town so tiny that whites, blacks, and Indians had been mixing as far back as anyone could remember. Richard was the son of a “white” truck driver who worked for a well-off “Negro” farmer. Mildred, who said she was “part negro and part Indian,” fit into the catch-all category of “colored.” The labels “white” and “colored” carried enough weight that Richard and Mildred attended different schools and churches. Still, they knew each other even before they met at a local dance and started dating. When Richard was 24 and Mildred was 18, they decided to get married.

Richard knew they had no hope of getting a license in Virginia, so the pair traveled toWashington, D.C. to get married, returning with a marriage certificate that they framed and placed on a wall of the home they shared with Mildred's parents. Most of their Central Point neighbors paid little attention to the marriage, but someone told the Caroline County sheriff, who vowed to put a stop to it. The newlyweds had lived together for a little more than a month when they were awakened in the middle of the night by the sheriff and his deputies, who walked through the unlocked door of the house and right into the Lovings' bedroom to arrest them.

More here. (Note: One post throughout February will be dedicated to Black History Month.)