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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

June 12, 2018: The Supreme Court and Progress: Loving v. Virginia


[On June 12th, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia to strike down all remaining laws prohibiting interracial marriage. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Loving and four other cases in which the Court helped advance social progress, leading up to a special weekend post on the role of courts and judges in our own society!]
On two under-remembered contexts for the 1967 decision, and why they matter.
The Virginia law that Richard and Mildred Loving violated with their June 1958 marriage was less than forty years old. Passed by the Virginia General Assembly in March 1924, the Racial Integrity Act both required racial identification of all Virginians at birth (with only two possible categories, “white” and “colored”) and criminalized all marriages between members of those two racial categories. It’s easy to imagine (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone) that such anti-miscegenation laws had existed in Virginia for centuries, and of course they do have longer-term antecedents and heritages. But as with many of America’s most overt and discriminatory exclusionary laws and policies, it was in the 1920s that Virginia truly codified these odious aspects of Jim Crow racial segregation and opposition to interracial relationships. That more recent history doesn’t make the Loving’s marriage (performed in Washington, DC, although they lived in Central Point, Virginia) any less illegal in 1958, but it does at least reflect the evolving nature of such laws and debates.
Just over a month later, the Lovings were arrested in their home for violating that law; in January 1959 they pled guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth,” and to avoid serving the one-year prison sentence accepted a deal where they agreed to leave the state and not return together for at least 25 years. They moved together to Washington, DC, and it was that physical relocation that provided the origin point for their legal fight and eventual Supreme Court victory. That is, we might assume that the Lovings were unable to be married or together due to Virginia’s racist laws, but that wasn’t the case; it was instead the separation from their families (all of whom still lived in Virginia and whom the Lovings could not visit without risking prison) and their broader communities that by 1964 had become sufficiently intolerable that Mildred Loving wrote in protest to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, setting in motion the events that would lead them to the ACLU, legal appeals, and the Supreme Court’s ground-breaking 1967 decision. Of course love and marriage were vital components of those histories and victories, but it was really family and community that most directly drove the Lovings to pursue legal action.
I would argue that both of those specific historical contexts are important to remember for at least two kinds of reasons. For one thing, they remind us that our overarching historical narratives—interracial relationships had been illegal in a place like Virginia forever; the Lovings just wanted to be able to be married to one another—are often at best simplified, and at worst fundamentally inaccurate to the details (which matter a great deal). And for another, both of these particular details highlight the role that images and ideals of community and place—both in exclusionary and in inclusive ways—can play in shaping other debates and histories. Indeed, the opposition between the 1924 law and the Loving’s goals came down in many ways to two competing visions of Virginia: an exclusionary one that broke the state down into white and colored inhabitants and sought to keep them separate from one another in even the most personal and intimate ways; and an inclusive one for which the ideal Virginia community would be not just the Loving’s and their three children, but also and perhaps especially the extended family and community that they shared in Central Point. In 1967, the Supreme Court sided with that inclusive vision, and helped extend it to all American families and communities.
Next decision tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Supreme Court decisions or contexts you’d highlight?

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