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Remembering Mildred Loving, Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement

On May 2, Mildred Loving died from complications of pneumonia at the age of 68.  The unassuming Mrs. Loving would have scoffed at the notion that she was a hero of the Civil Rights Movement.  But for millions of Americans the Loving v. Virginia (1967) case—which outlawed bans on interracial marriage—has resonated to the present as their declaration of independence.

The Lovings’ story began in June 1958 when they were married in Washington, DC.  Richard Perry Loving and Mildred Delores Jeter of Central Point, Virginia crossed into the District to evade their state’s Racial Integrity Act, a law that defined the marriage of a white man and African American woman as a felony.  Five weeks later on July 11, the newly-married couple was rousted from their bed by the Caroline County, Virginia sheriff and two deputies and arrested for violating the 1924 law.  In a plea agreement, they pleaded guilty in return for a one-year suspended jail sentence and an agreement not to return to the state together for twenty-five years.

The couple moved to Washington, started a family, and struggled to make ends meet.  Eventually the isolation from family and friends proved too much.  In 1963 Mildred Loving contacted the American Civil Liberties Union which agreed to take the case.  Eventually Loving v. Virginia was argued before the Supreme Court of the United States on April 10, 1967.  Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the Court on June 12.  Warren put the question succinctly:  did the “statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications” violate the “Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?”  The Court concluded that the Virginia law directly contradicted the “central meaning” of those constitutional safeguards and was therefore unconstitutional.

The Lovings were always quick to note that while they were glad their case proved so helpful to so many people their main concern was the welfare of their own family.  “We are doing it for us,” Richard Loving told an interviewer in 1966.  But the Loving decision eventually impacted millions.

So-called “anti-miscegenation laws” were one of the more tenacious vestiges of Jim Crow.  The last state to strike anti-miscegenation statutes from its organic law was Alabama which waited until 2000 to do so.  In the decades since the ruling, there has been a marked increase in mixed race marriages and by the 1990s we were in the midst of an interracial baby-boom.  Also of particular importance to the growth of the mixed-race population was the Immigration Act of 1965 that eliminated many of the racist immigration restrictions from earlier legislation and contributed to the “browning of America.”  Census 2000, the first to allow Americans to check more than one box for racial identity, counted 7.3 million people, about 3 percent of the population, as interracial.  The most striking fact of all from the data is that 41 percent of that mixed race population was under the age of eighteen.

It is also notable that this profound demographic shift would have such a powerful resonance in the marketplace where corporate powerhouses from Nike to the Gap have embraced interracialism in their marketing campaigns.  It has been over a decade since Tiger Woods took advantage of an appearance on Oprah to introduce the world to his “Cablinasian” heritage.  While Woods was simply pointing out that he could just as easily be considered an Asian-American golf champion as an African American golf champion, his performance proved a marketing bonanza for Nike who has made Asia the fastest growing market for golfing equipment and apparel in the world.  Since then celebrities from Halle Barry to Mariah Carey, to Johnny Depp have publicly embraced (and cashed in on) their mixed-race identities.

Of course there is no better example of the emergence of a mixed race America than the candidacy of US Senator Barack Obama.  When Obama was born in 1961 his parents union was still considered illegal in sixteen states.  On the campaign trail, he frequently invokes the experiences of his white mother and Kenyan father and his own subsequent rise as a new American Dream narrative and his own achievements as a road-map towards “a more perfect union.”

But what Barack Obama has also noted is that while his crazy-quilt genealogy might inspire hope, it does nothing to challenge race as a totalizing apparatus of power.  In his much celebrated Philadelphia speech on race, Obama spoke of a generation of African Americans, people such as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who knew the sting of Jim Crow and who felt the narrowing of opportunities in the black community most acutely.  Their bitterness had often turned to rage.  Likewise, the Senator spoke of white ethnics and working-class voters who have proven susceptible to the Siren’s song of conservative politicians and talk-show hosts who would exploit their fears for the future by playing the race card.  Obama’s recent struggles in Ohio and Pennsylvania have once more illuminated those racial fault-lines.

This is why we should take a moment to remember Mildred and Richard Loving.  Certainly their fight and ultimate triumph has proven to be so important to so many people.  June 12, the day that Earl Warren’s decision in the Loving case was handed down, is observed as an informal holiday by mixed race couples across the nation.  But more importantly, it was the willingness of the Loving’s to confront that apparatus of power—to refuse to be cowed in the face of injustice that inspires and is so instructive.  When attorney Bernard Cohen tried to explain the legal intricacies of their case, he remembered Richard Loving’s simple reply:  “Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”  In a political age that is so often characterized by its hard-bitten cynicism, it is easy to forget the transformative power of love.

MARK A. HUDDLE is an assistant professor of history at St. Bonaventure Universtiy. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book, “The Paradox of Color: Mixed Race Americans and the Burden of History,” which will published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. He can be reached at: MHUDDLE@sbu.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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