Loving v. Virginia: Equal means equal

In a blockbuster, landmark ruling that rolled back the tides of racism and White Supremacy, the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), affirmed marriage as a fundamental right protected by the 14th Amendment when it struck down a state law that banned interracial marriage.

Just a dozen years after the Court had held in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and, in a historical context in which racial violence and southern resistance to civil rights laws and rulings captured daily headlines, the Court proceeded to deliver a powerful blow for the cause of racial justice, equal protection and due process of law.

The Court acknowledged in Loving that it was addressing an issue that it had never heard: Whether a state law to prevent marriages between persons based solely on racial classifications violates the 14th Amendment?

In 1967, Virginia was one of 16 states that prohibited and punished interracial marriages, one of the badges and incidents of slavery dating back to the colonial period. Some 14 states had recently rescinded their miscegenation statutes. The Virginia law was somewhat distinct from others that prohibited interracial marriage. The Virginia statute — “An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity” — extended only to the integrity of the “white race.” Virginia prohibited whites from marrying nonwhites, subject to the exception for descendants of Pocahontas, but permitted Blacks, Asians and any other racial class to intermarry without interference from the state. The Virginia law, as the Court noted, was “designed to maintain White Supremacy.”

Two Virginians, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a woman of mixed African American and Native American descent had grown up, fallen in love and wanted to create and build their family in the only state that they had ever known. Because of the state ban on interracial marriage, the young couple, in 1958, drove from Caroline County, Virginia to Washington D.C. to get married.

The Lovings returned to Central Point, Virginia and hung their marriage certificate on a wall in their bedroom. Several weeks later, law enforcement officials, acting on an anonymous tip, burst into their bedroom around 2 a.m., shined a flashlight in the eyes of the Lovings and demanded of Richard: “Who is this woman you are sleeping with?” Richard pointed to the marriage certificate on the wall, and a sheriff responded: “That’s no good here.” Richard and Mildred were arrested and taken to jail. Richard spent the night in jail; Mildred, a woman of color, spent the next five days and nights behind bars.

The Lovings, without benefit of legal counsel, appeared before a local judge and entered guilty pleas to charges of violating the miscegenation statute. The judge imposed a one-year jail sentence but said he would suspend the sentence if Richard and Mildred agreed to leave the state and did not return for 25 years. The judge lectured the Lovings: “Almighty God created the separate races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” which meant God “did not intend for them to mix.”

Roughly five years later, the Lovings, exiled from their childhood homes, wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy about their plight. Kennedy advised them to contact the American Civil Liberties Association, which agreed to represent them. On June 12, 1967, Chief Justice Earl Warren, in a 9-0 opinion, delivered the Court’s landmark ruling. “There can be no doubt, Warren wrote, referring to the 14th Amendment, “that restricting freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.” In essence, Warren declared, the clause means what it says: equal means equal. He stated, as an additional holding, that the Virginia prohibition on interracial marriage also “deprived the Lovings of liberty without due process” of law.

The Court recognized the deep racial prejudice that informed Virginia’s law. Employing the “most rigid scrutiny” in cases involving racial classifications, which the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment required, the Court concluded that there “is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious discrimination which justifies this classification.” The goal of the measure, Chief Justice Warren concluded, was to “maintain White Supremacy.”

The prohibition discriminated against racially mixed couples and those wishing to marry outside their race, both of which were regarded as “they” groups. The fact that the law carried criminal penalties rankled the Court. In a concurring opinion, written only to emphasize his previously stated opinion that miscegenation statutes violated the 14th Amendment, Justice Potter Stewart stated: “it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of the act depend on the race of the actor.”

Richard and Mildred Loving were neither educated nor sophisticated citizens. Nor were they interested in making political statements or starting fights, let alone leading a constitutional crusade for enforcement of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses. As Mildred said, they “were just in love and wanted to be married.” The Supreme Court, Chief Justice Warren explained, thought that was sufficient. “Under our Constitution,” he wrote, “the freedom to marry, or not to marry a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”