Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), was a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
The case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other. Their marriage violated the state’s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored.” The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision held this prohibition was unconstitutional, overturning Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.
The decision was followed by an increase in interracial marriages in the U.S., and is remembered annually on Loving Day, June 12. It has been the subject of two movies as well as songs. In the 2010s, it again became relevant in the context of the debate about same-sex marriage in the United States.
The plaintiffs in the case were Mildred Delores Loving, née Jeter (July 22, 1939 – May 2, 2008), a woman of African and Rappahannock Native American descent, and Richard Perry Loving (October 29, 1933 – June 1975), a white man.
The couple had three children: Donald, Peggy, and Sidney. Richard Loving died aged 41 in 1975, when a drunk driver struck his car in Caroline County, Virginia.Mildred Loving lost her right eye in the same accident. She died of pneumonia on May 2, 2008, in Milford, Virginia, aged 68.
At the age of 18, Mildred became pregnant, and in June 1958 the couple traveled to Washington, D.C. to marry, thereby evading Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made interracial marriage a crime. They returned to the small town of Central Point, Virginia. Based on an anonymous tip, local police raided their home at night, hoping to find them having sex, which was also a crime according to Virginia law. When the officers found the Lovings sleeping in their bed, Mildred pointed out their marriage certificate on the bedroom wall. That certificate became the evidence for the criminal charge of “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth” that was brought against them.
The Lovings were charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to Virginia, and Section 20-59, which classified miscegenation as a felony, punishable by a prison sentence of between one and five years. The trial judge in the case, Leon M. Bazile, echoing Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s 18th-century interpretation of race:
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.
On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pled guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leave the state of Virginia. They did so, moving to the District of Columbia.
In 1964, frustrated by their inability to travel together to visit their families in Virginia and social isolation and financial difficulties in Washington, Mildred Loving wrote in protest to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU filed a motion on behalf of the Lovings in the state trial court to vacate the judgment and set aside the sentence on the grounds that the violated statutes ran counter to the Fourteenth Amendment. This set in motion a series of lawsuits which ultimately reached the Supreme Court.
On October 28, 1964, after the Lovings’ motion still had not been decided, they brought a class action suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. On January 22, 1965, the three-judge district court decided to allow the Lovings to present their constitutional claims to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Virginia Supreme Court Justice Harry L. Carrico (later Chief Justice of the Court) wrote an opinion for the court upholding the constitutionality of the anti-miscegenation statutes and, after modifying the sentence, affirmed the criminal convictions. Ignoring United States Supreme Court precedent, Carrico cited as authority the Virginia Supreme Court’s own decision in Naim v. Naim (1955), also arguing that the case at hand was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause because both the white and the non-white spouse were punished equally for the crime of miscegenation, an argument similar to that made by the United States Supreme Court in 1883 in Pace v. Alabama.
The Lovings, supported by the ACLU, appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. They did not attend the oral arguments in Washington, but their lawyer, Bernard S. Cohen, conveyed the message he had been given by Richard Loving 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.”
Before Loving v. Virginia, there had been several cases on the subject of interracial relations. In Pace v. Alabama (1883), the Supreme Court ruled that the conviction of an Alabama couple for interracial sex, affirmed on appeal by the Alabama Supreme Court, did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Interracial marital sex was deemed a felony, whereas extramarital sex (“adultery or fornication”) was only a misdemeanor. On appeal, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the criminalization of interracial sex was not a violation of the equal protection clause because whites and non-whites were punished in equal measure for the offense of engaging in interracial sex. The court did not need to affirm the constitutionality of the ban on interracial marriage that was also part of Alabama’s anti-miscegenation law, since the plaintiff, Mr. Pace, had chosen not to appeal that section of the law. After Pace v. Alabama, the constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws banning marriage and sex between whites and non-whites remained unchallenged until the 1920s.
In Kirby v. Kirby (1921), Mr. Kirby asked the state of Arizona for an annulment of his marriage. He charged that his marriage was invalid because his wife was of ‘negro’ descent, thus violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law. The Arizona Supreme Court judged Mrs. Kirby’s race by observing her physical characteristics and determined that she was of mixed race, therefore granting Mr. Kirby’s annulment.
In the Monks case (Estate of Monks, 4. Civ. 2835, Records of California Court of Appeals, Fourth district), the Superior Court of San Diego County in 1939 decided to invalidate the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Allan Monks because she was deemed to have “one eighth negro blood.” The court case involved a legal challenge over the conflicting wills that had been left by the late Allan Monks, an old one in favor of a friend named Ida Lee and a newer one in favor of his wife. Lee’s lawyers charged that the marriage of the Monkses, which had taken place in Arizona, was invalid under Arizona state law because Marie Antoinette was “a Negro” and Alan had been white. Despite conflicting testimony by various expert witnesses, the judge defined Mrs. Monks’ race by relying on the anatomical “expertise” of a surgeon. The judge ignored the arguments of an anthropologist and a biologist that it was impossible to tell a person’s race from physical characteristics.
Monks then challenged the Arizona anti-miscegenation law itself, taking her case to the California Court of Appeals, Fourth District. Monks’ lawyers pointed out that the anti-miscegenation law effectively prohibited Monks as a mixed-race person from marrying anyone: “As such, she is prohibited from marrying a negro or any descendant of a negro, a Mongolian or an Indian, a Malay or a Hindu, or any descendants of any of them. Likewise … as a descendant of a negro she is prohibited from marrying a Caucasian or a descendant of a Caucasian….” The Arizona anti-miscegenation statute thus prohibited Monks from contracting a valid marriage in Arizona, and was therefore an unconstitutional constraint on her liberty. The court, however, dismissed this argument as inapplicable, because the case presented involved not two mixed-race spouses but a mixed-race and a white spouse: “Under the facts presented the appellant does not have the benefit of assailing the validity of the statute.” Dismissing Monks’ appeal in 1942, the United States Supreme Court refused to reopen the issue.
The turning point came with Perez v. Sharp (1948), also known as Perez v. Lippold. In Perez, the Supreme Court of California recognized that bans on interracial marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions in a unanimous decision (dated June 12, 1967), dismissing the Commonwealth of Virginia’s argument that a law forbidding both white and black persons from marrying persons of another race, and providing identical penalties to white and black violators, could not be construed as racially discriminatory. The court ruled that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion for the unanimous court held that:
Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.
The court concluded that anti-miscegenation laws were racist and had been enacted to perpetuate white supremacy:
There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.
Associate Justice Potter Stewart filed a brief concurring opinion. He reiterated his opinion from McLaughlin v. Florida that “it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.”
Implications of the decision
For interracial marriage
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books in several states, although the decision had made them unenforceable. In 2000, Alabama became the last state to adapt its laws to the Supreme Court’s decision, by removing a provision prohibiting mixed-race marriage from its state constitution through a ballot initiative. 60% of voters voted for the removal of the anti-miscegenation rule, and 40% against.
After Loving v. Virginia, the number of interracial marriages continued to increase across the United States and in the South. In Georgia, for instance, the number of interracial marriages increased from 21 in 1967 to 115 in 1970.
For same-sex marriage
Loving v. Virginia is discussed in the context of the public debate about same-sex marriage in the United States.
In Hernandez v. Robles (2006), the majority opinion of the New York Court of Appeals, that state’s highest court, declined to rely on the Loving case when deciding whether a right to same-sex marriage existed, holding that “the historical background of Loving is different from the history underlying this case.” In the 2010, federal district court decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which overturned California’s Proposition 8 (which restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples), Judge Vaughn R. Walker cited Loving v. Virginia to conclude that “the [constitutional] right to marry protects an individual’s choice of marital partner regardless of gender”. On more narrow grounds, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
In June 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the issuance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving, commenting on the comparison between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage, Mildred Loving issued a statement in relation to Loving v. Virginia and its mention in the ongoing court case Perry v. Brown:
I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry… I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.