Loving v. Virginia 1967
Loving v. Virginia 1967
Appellants: Mildred Jeter Loving, Richard Perry Loving
Appellee: Commonwealth of Virginia
Appellant's Claim: That Virginia state laws prohibiting interracial marriages violate the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection and due process clauses.
Chief Lawyer for Appellants: Bernard S. Cohen
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: R.D. McIlwaine III
Justices Dissenting: None (Justice Thurgood Marshall did not participate)
Date of Decision: June 12, 1967
Decision: Ruled in favor of the Lovings by finding Virginia's laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional.
Significance: The Court emphasized that all racial classifications are suspect and subject to strict scrutiny by the courts. Protecting an individual's freedom to choose a marriage partner, the ruling outlawed all state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
In the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Americans considered the freedom to choose a marriage partner a fundamental right. The idea that government could interfere with that choice was unthinkable. Yet, as late as 1967 laws prohibiting "miscegenation" were on the books in sixteen states. Miscegenation refers to marriage between a Caucasian (white) and a member of any other race. It was not until June of 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia.
Interracial Marriage in Virginia
Virginia was one of the sixteen states with miscegenation laws in 1967. Three laws applied: (1) Provision 20-57 of the Virginia Code automatically voided all marriages between "a white person and a colored person" without any legal hearings; (2) 20-58 made it a crime for any white person and colored person to leave Virginia to be married and then return to live in Virginia; and, (3) 20-59 provided punishment by declaring interracial marriages a felony leading to a prison sentence of not less than one nor more than five years for each individual involved. Although penalties for miscegenation had been common in Virginia since slavery times, Virginia's codes were based on the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. This act absolutely prohibited a white person from marrying anyone other than another white person. Virginia passed the act following World War I in a time of distrust for anyone not Caucasian. The miscegenation codes were still actively enforced into the 1960s.
Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving
In June of 1958, two Virginia residents, Mildred Jeter, a black American woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, married in the District of Columbia according to its laws. Shortly after their marriage, the Lovings returned to Caroline County, Virginia where they established their home. In October of 1958 a grand jury for the Circuit Court of Caroline County issued an indictment (charge) against the Lovings for violating Virginia's codes banning interracial (between different races) marriage. The Lovings pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to one year in jail. The trial judge suspended the sentence on the condition the Lovings leave Virginia and not return together for twenty-five years. In his opinion, the trial judge stated,
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, . . . and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
After their convictions, the Lovings moved to the District of Columbia. They requested a state trial court to vacate (to set aside or make void) the judgement against them on the ground that the Virginia miscegenation laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment declares that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law [Due Process Clause]; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographical area over which a government has authority] the equal protection of the laws [Equal Protection Clause]." Due process of law means fair legal hearings must take place. Equal protection of the laws means persons or groups of persons in similar situations must be treated equally by the laws. The Lovings' request was denied in January of 1965 but their case moved onto the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals the following month.
The appeals court upheld the constitutionality of the miscegenation laws and affirmed the Lovings' convictions. The court referred to its 1955 decision in Naim v. Naim where it concluded that Virginia had legitimate (honest) purposes for the miscegenation laws. Those purposes were "to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens," and to prevent "the corruption of blood," and "a mongrel breed of citizens." Furthermore, the appeals court asserted that for a law "containing" racial classifications (groupings of people based on some selected factor) all the Equal Protection Clause required was that both the white and black participants be punished equally thus avoiding discrimination (treating individuals in similar situations differently) claims. This equal punishment idea was known as "equal application." If both were punished equally, as was the case with the Lovings, then no violation of the Equal Protection Clause existed and, likewise, no "invidious [objectionable, intent to harm] discrimination against race." The state found support for "equal application" theory in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Pace v. Alabama (1883).
The Lovings next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case.
To the U.S. Supreme Court
In a 8–0 decision, the Court disagreed with the lower courts' decisions and reversed the Lovings' convictions. Justice Thurgood Marshall did not participate. Delivering the Court's opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote,
This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory [law] . . . to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court answered the question in a two-part decision.
Race Classification Is Always Suspicious
First, the Court rejected the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals' finding that because of "equal application," or equal punishment, there was no racial discrimination. The Court pointed out that the Pace v. Alabama (1883) decision had not survived later decisions by the Court. The "equal application" concept was no longer valid.
Chief Justice Warren wrote, "The clear and central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to eliminate all official state sources of invidious racial discrimination." Warren continued that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "demands" that any law based on racial classification is "suspect" (suspicious) and must be examined with rigid scrutiny (strict, intense examination). In other words, the Court automatically viewed racial classification as suspicious and would assume that it probably violated the Equal Protection Clause. A law with suspect classification would normally be judged unconstitutional unless the government could justify it with a compelling (extremely important) reason for its need. A law that's purpose is racial discrimination or antagonism can never be found constitutional.
Chief Justice Warren stated that "there can be no question" Virginia's miscegenation laws were clearly based solely on classification of people according to race. The Court, applying strict scrutiny, found no compelling (overwhelming need for) reason for Virginia's action. Therefore, Warren wrote, "There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause."
The Fundamental Freedom to Marry
Secondly, the Court identified marriage as one of the "basic civil rights of man."
Restricting the freedom to marry was in direct violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Warren eloquently explained,
to deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications [in the Virginia law], . . . classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment is sure to deprive all the State's citizens liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed [restricted] by the State.
In Loving the Court held that all racial classifications are suspect classifications subject to strict scrutiny. It struck down all laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
B y 1990 there were four times as many interracial marriages as in 1960 but the overall number remained small. Considering only black-white marriages, in 1991 just 0.4 percent of total marriages were black-white couples.
With a further decline in social prejudices in the 1990s, surveys indicated young Americans were more open to the idea of interracial union. Experts predicted an increase of cross-cultural marriages involving not only black and white Americans but many other races. Between 1980 and 1996 the number of total married couples in the United States increased 10 percent to 54,664,000, but the number of interracial marriages had almost doubled to 1,260,000.
Interestingly, however, by the late 1990s many black women began to oppose the idea of interracial marriage. Instead, they preferred black to black marriages for racial strength and stabilization of the black family.
Suggestions for further reading
Funderburg, Lise. Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity. New York: W. Morrow and Co., 1994.
Kaeser, Gigi. Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
McDonald, Laughlin, and John A. Powell. The Rights of Racial Minorities (ACLU Handbooks for Young Americans). New York: