Today’s blog is written by Dr. Christina Violeta Jones, Textual Reference Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland
1969 was a remarkable year. Richard Nixon became the 37th President, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were the first two men to land on the moon, and Woodstock the music festival took place. Also born in 1969 was the tourism/travel slogan “Virginia is for Lovers,” established by advertising agents David N. Martin and George Woltz of Richmond, Virginia. This bold and provocative phrase was intended to plant a new image of a more exciting Virginia, appealing to younger consumers who were the market of the future. Given the new unofficial state motto, it is incredible that only two years before Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and Mildred Delores Jeter Loving, a woman of African American and Native American descent, were fighting for the right to live as husband and wife in the state of Virginia. Loving v. Virginia (1967) was a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Laws banning interracial marriage (also known as anti-miscegenation laws) were well established throughout the United States since the country declared its independence in 1776. The Virginia state law was the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriage between whites and other non-white ethnic groups, mandated that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, and divided society into two classifications: white and colored. However, in certain parts of Virginia “racial integrity” did not always translate from the law books into real life. The town where the Lovings grew up was considered “the passing capital of America” for the ability of its black residents to pass as white once they left town. Nevertheless, segregation and its laws still existed.
When Mildred became pregnant in June of 1958, the couple married in Washington, D.C. where there was no law against interracial marriage and soon after returned to Caroline County, Virginia. One night the local police raided their home and when Mildred pointed their marriage certificate out to the police, the document became the evidence for a criminal charge. The couple was charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to Virginia, and Section 20-59, which classified miscegenation as a felony.
In January, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leaves the state of Virginia. It was then that the couple moved back to Washington, D.C.
By 1964, the Lovings were frustrated, in part from their social isolation and financial difficulties, but more so because they were unable to travel in Virginia as a married couple, to visit their families. Around this time, Mildred wrote a letter in protest to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU attorneys Phil Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen filed a motion on behalf of the couple in the Virginia State trial court to vacate the judgment from Virginia and set aside the sentence on the grounds that the violated statues ran counter to the Fourteenth Amendment. This set in motion a series of lawsuits, which ultimately reached the Supreme Court of the United States.
As seen in the Opinion given above, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions for violating the Virginia Code in an unanimous decision to dismiss the case that a law forbidding both white and black people from marrying people of another race and providing identical penalties to white and black violator could be construed as racial discrimination (RG 267, Appellate Jurisdiction Case Files). The court ruled that Virginia’s miscegenation status violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
As we celebrate African American History month and Valentine’s Day in February, readers should keep in mind that Richard and Mildred Loving never considered themselves activists, they just wanted to live a simple life; loving each other, living happily married, and raising their children in their home in the state of Virginia.
Readers should note that several documents from the Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia case file are featured in the Records of Rights and the Making their Mark: Stories through Signatures exhibits. Making their Mark will open March 21, 2014 and close January 5, 2015 in the O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives building in Washington, DC.