Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Landmark Supreme Court Case: The Lovings

Forty years ago today the Supreme Court made a landmark decision on a case that had landed Richard and Mildred Loving in jail, and then before the Supreme Court, and finally in the history books. The court ruled in favor of the couple, overturning laws prohibiting interracial unions and changing the face of America.

The case took place in the state of Virginia where there were laws banning interracial marriage (as there were in most other states in the United States). The case of Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and a black woman who were convicted by the state of Virginia for the crime of marrying across racial lines in the late 1950s was the first case to challenge the law. The couple were not activists, but their battle to live together as husband and wife in their home state of Virginia instigated the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that antimiscegenation laws were unconstitutional, which ultimately resulted in the overturning of laws against interracial marriage that were still in effect in sixteen states by the late 1960s.

American anti-miscegenation laws were first enacted in Maryland in the seventeenth century and continued to the year 2000 with a section of the Alabama Constitution forbidding the state legislature from legitimizing interracial marriage. An increasing number of citizens marry across racial lines today, and there have been radical changes in laws regarding interracial marriage in the past few decades.

Mildred Loving still lives in the white house just over the Caroline County border (Richard died in an auto accident in 1975). The 67-year-old says she never wanted the fame her marriage brought her. She was a skinny 11-year-old nicknamed "Bean" when she met a 17-year-old boy who was a family friend. Over the near few years, their friendship led to courtship, their relationship taking an abrupt turn when an 18-year-old Mildred became pregnant (they would have two more children). And so, they drove 80 miles to Washington, D.C., in 1958, married, and returned to Central Point to start a new life. Within a month of their return they were jailed.

The couple would spend several years living in exile in Washington after being arrested and convicted on charges of "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth," according to their indictments and had avoided a year in jail only by agreeing to a sentence mandating, "both accused leave Caroline County and the state of Virginia at once, and do not return together or at the same time to said county and state for a period of 25 years." Laws banning racially mixed marriages existed in at least 17 states in 1964.

The frustrated young wife had written to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred her to the ACLU for help returning to their Virginia home permanently. A 28-year-old attorney just out of law school, Phil Hirschkop was just a few months out of law school with another lawyer, Bernard Cohen, took the case to the Supreme Court.

Hirschkop argued that laws must treat each citizen equally, and that "when a law is based on race, it is immediately suspect and the burden is shifted to the state to show there is a compelling interest to have that sort of racial differentiation." On June 12, 1967, the court agreed.

In Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving, lawyer Phyl Newbeck describes how the laws banning intermarriage came about, how they were perpetuated, and how they were finally struck down. In addition to detailing the story of the courtship, marriage, and arrest of the Lovings, the volume describes the growth of antimiscegenation legislation, the subsequent fight to eliminate racially discriminatory practices, and the litigations that continued years after the Supreme Court had ruled on the issue. Newbeck looks at a generous and representative sampling of court cases that invalidated marriages and imprisoned couples during the twentieth century, including ones in which inheritance rights were severed and child custody was terminated due to interracial unions. She also discusses three court decisions that quashed antimiscegenation laws in California, Nevada, and Arizona in the mid-twentieth century and the role that activist groups played in these changes.

If you're looking for a good book to read this summer maybe Phyl Newbeck snapshot of America in the 60's is just the ticket. Find out more about the Lovings and the interesting read at: www.siu.edu/~siupress/titles/f04_titles/newbeck_virginia.htm

Footnote: More than 7 percent of America's 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than 2 percent in 1970, according to Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld.

Now, here's a poem you can love:

You Were Saying

It's 3am. We sit at the kitchen table in only
our T-shirts. A light over the stove is the
only one on. The bag of microwave popcorn
is already finished and now lay balled-up on
the floor next to the trash container due to
a short-sighted hook shot. I stick an index
finger into a jar of molasses and then suck it
clean right up to the knuckle. Rain still beats
against the window but lighter now than it
was when it woke us up. Talking in that
sometimes confusing way of your you say, "I
wanted to be air when I was a child and later
on a balloon but my father advised me to build a
bigger bellow if I wanted to really rise to higher
ambitions in life". Of course I know what you're
implying even if the constant sweeping offstage
is slightly distracting.

Poem first published online at: http://www.onefortytwo.com/
Copyright 2007 by Maurice Oliver. All Rights Reserved.
Visit my e-zine: http://www.concelebratory.blogspot.com/
and music blog: http://www.medleymakersant.blogspot.com/

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