Fifty-five years ago, on June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, struck down in the name of equal protection and due process a state law banning interracial marriage. The Court declared that the right of marriage, though nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, is a fundamental right, the exercise of which is protected by the 14th Amendment.
The Court’s unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, represented a powerful blow to one of the remaining remnants of Jim Crow and Virginia’s effort to promote White Supremacy. The 1924 anti-miscegenation law at issue, “An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity,” prohibited only whites from marrying people of color. The state made no effort under the law to ban African Americans, Orientals or any other “racial class” from marrying one another.
Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, had fallen in love while attending high school in Virginia. In June of 1958, the couple was married in Washington, D.C., in accordance with its laws. When the Lovings returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, they were charged with violating the state law banning interracial marriage. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a year in prison. However, the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings left the state and didn’t return for 25 years. In his opinion, the judge expressed the belief that God had created separate races and placed them on separate continents to preclude mixed marriage.
Following their convictions, the Lovings took up residence in Washington, but in 1963, eager to return to their home in Virginia, they filed a motion in state court to vacate the judgment on grounds that the law was repugnant to the 14th Amendment. They were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been contacted on behalf of the Lovings by U.S Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
The Lovings faced an uphill battle in Virginia state courts. The high court in the state upheld the 1924 statute, which reflected laws and practices that grew out of the period of slavery, on grounds that Virginia possessed legitimate purposes in the enactment of the legislation. The court’s defense and endorsement of White Supremacy rested on the state’s valid need “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” and to “prevent the corruption of blood,” the rise of “mongrel breed of citizens,” and the “obliteration of racial pride.”
Chief Justice Warren’s opinion denied that there was any “rational foundation” to support the racist laws and emphasized in the application of the strict scrutiny test to laws that created classifications based on race, that the 14th Amendment imposed “a heavy burden of justification” on the state to defend such statutes. The “clear and central purpose” of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, Warren declared, “was to eliminate all official sources of invidious racial discrimination in the states.”
The Virginia miscegenation statute was viewed by the court as “arbitrary and invidious discrimination” since it prohibited “generally accepted conduct if engaged in by members of different races.” Chief Justice Warren reiterated the Court’s practice of repudiating distinctions based solely on a citizen’s ancestry, for they are “odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.”
In addition to the statute’s violation of the Equal Protection Clause, Warren held, it also deprived the Lovings of their liberty under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, which recognizes that “the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” The Court held that the state has no authority to interfere with the exercise of this fundamental right through means of invidious discrimination.
Virginia had argued that the regulation of marriage, including the performance and dissolution of marriage, fell to the states under the 10th Amendment of the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The Supreme Court acknowledged that states enjoy broad authority under the “state police power” to regulate marriage but reminded readers that this power is not absolute and is subject to the commands of the 14th Amendment.
In the end, the Court in Loving, as it had in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in striking down segregation in public schools, objected to the miscegenation statute on grounds that it imposed an invidious racial classification and promoted White Supremacy. Racial classification and racial subordination in America, the Court said, are anathema to the core values and principles of the 14th Amendment.
The Court’s landmark ruling in favor of the Lovings permitted the couple to return to their hometown, where they lived the remainder of their lives. June 12, the anniversary of the decision, is commemorated each year as “Loving Day,” celebrating multiracial families.