Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia

This June marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unanimous struck down anti-miscegenation statutes in it’s ruling testing Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” in a case involving the interracial marriage of a Virginia couple. The case was brought on by the Virginia ACLU. This was a great victory for human rights but unfortunately, the right of consenting adults to marry has still not been firmly established as witnessed by last year’s vote to amend Virginia’s constitution banning same sex marriages.

Kent Willis, Director of the Virginia ACLU, penned the following op-ed:
Forty years ago today the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law that criminalized the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving.

Richard was white and Mildred was black. They had violated Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute and were banned not just from rural Caroline County, where they had met and fallen in love, but also the entire state of Virginia.

The Caroline County judge who in 1959 found them guilty of violating the Virginia Racial Integrity Act, wrote, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

For those of us who grew up in the segregated South in the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of bigoted reasoning from a rural county judge was not terribly shocking. But there is no excuse for the disgraceful ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court that followed. In 1965, Virginia’s finest legal minds upheld the ban on interracial marriage, relying on an earlier case in which it said the state was obligated “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens” and to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride.”

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court -- only one hundred miles up the road from Richmond but worlds apart from the prejudiced provincialism of the Virginia judicial system-- saw it differently. The high court had given us Brown v. Board of Education a decade earlier, and had watched Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Loving v. Virginia was in the right place at the right time.

It would seem to be a good time to rest, at least momentarily, on our laurels-- to celebrate how far we have come since 1967. But it is hard to be joyous about the right to marry in a state that denies gay and lesbian couples that entitlement.

The harsh bigotry found in the words of Virginia’s judges in the Loving case seem like a fading echo from a distant past -- something we study for the lessons we can learn from them, but which have no place in these more enlightened times. But the closer I look at those old words, the more I realize how similar in spirit they are to the words used today by Virginia’s legislators, who have not only banned gay marriage but also prohibited gays and lesbians from entering into other legal arrangements of their choice.

It was a rising cultural tide that thrust the civil rights movement upon us and carried the Loving case to its inevitable conclusion. And one day soon, as more and more Americans see the pettiness of their prejudices against gays and lesbians, there will be a rising tide that carries the fight for gay and lesbian rights to its inevitable conclusion.

1 comment:

James Young said...

I think most Virginians today would be more offended by the PDA (public display of affection) than by an interracial couple. ;-)