50 Years Ago Today: The Supreme Court Strikes Down Bans on Interracial Marriage

Mildred Jeter of Central Point, Virginia, was only 16 years old when she became pregnant for the first time. Her child, Sidney, was born on January 27, 1957.

In June of 1958, now age 18, she discovered she was pregnant again. This time the father was 22-year-old bricklayer and construction worker Richard Loving, whom she had become friends with when she was 11 and he was 17.

The couple traveled 100 miles north from their hometown to Washington, D.C., where it was legal for an interracial couple to marry. Richard was Caucasian. Mildred self-identified on the marriage application as “Indian”–specifically,  Cherokee and Rappahannock, one of the ten state-recognized Native American tribes in Virginia.

At that time, 16 states prohibited interracial marriage (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia).

Only 10 states allowed it (Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont).

The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 had introduced two changes for the Commonwealth of Virginia:

(1) Everyone born in the state was required to receive one of two racial designations: “white” or “colored,” with any degree, even “one drop,” of African-American or Native-American ancestry counting toward the latter–although there was a loophole for the Virginia elite who traced their ancestry back to Pocahontas and John Rolfe.

(2) The anti-miscegenation ban on interracial marriage was tightened to include criminalization for violation. Miscegenation is a word coined in 19th century America from the Latin misce[re] (to mix) + gen[us] (race, stock, species).

A week and a half after they were married, and back in Virginia, a warrant was issued for the Lovings’ arrest on July 11, 1958.

That night, at 2 am, Central Point Sheriff Garnett Brooks knocked and then barged into the house through the unlocked door to enter their bedroom–hoping to catch them in the marital act, which would have been an additional felony. When Brooks shined his flashlight on the sleeping couple and demanded of Richard, “What are you doing in bed with this woman?” Jeter responded, “I’m his wife” and pointed to the framed marriage license on their bedroom wall.

Brooks proceeded with the arrest, informing them the the certificate was not valid in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Miscegenation was punishable by prison.

In October, a grand jury indicted the Lovings for violating Virginia’s interracial marriage ban.

Specifically, they had violated several statues of the Virginia Code, including::

§ 20-58. Leaving State to evade law.–If any white person and colored person shall go out of this State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return to and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in § 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this State. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.

§ 20-59. Punishment for marriage.–If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.

The Lovings pleaded guilty on January 9, 1959. County trial judge Leon Bazille agreed to suspend the prison sentence on the condition that the Lovings would leave Virginia immediately and not return for 25 years. They would be permitted to return to visit their families if done separately.

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition – Thomas Kidd and Justin Taylor