This Month Marks the 54th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Case that First Tackled Marriage Equality
April 10 marks the 54-year anniversary of the arguing of Loving v. Virginia, one of the most important civil rights cases in American history, and the foundation of rulings that would go on to grant equal rights to queer people five decades later.
The context in which the case was brought seems unthinkable, and yet it was recent enough that there are still many people alive who can remember when you could be arrested for marrying someone of another race. Those laws date back to before the country’s founding and helped form the racist backbone of America. Marriage between white people and slaves was never allowed, and even after the Civil War, most Southern states refused to recognize relationships between different races.
Generally speaking, most jurisdictions considered a person to be black if they were shown to have any black ancestry whatsoever — a ridiculous way of classifying people, given what we know now about all humans descending from African ancestors. About half of the United States banned marriage between races.
It was in that context that Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving traveled to Washington, D.C., to marry in 1958. Someone anonymously reported them, and Virginia police invaded their house in the early morning of July 11. The couple was charged with violating the state’s “Racial Integrity Act” and sentenced to a year in prison, suspended if they promised not to return to Virginia for 25 years. Both would carry a felony record for having married.
It took several years for the family to challenge the law. Mildred wrote to the ACLU in 1963, exasperated by the stigma of the conviction, and the organization took their case. That began years of challenges through various courts, culminating in the April 1967 argument before the United States Supreme Court. Backing the couple was the ACLU, joined by the NAACP, the Japanese-American Citizens League, and a group of Catholic bishops.
For their part, racist Virginia officials argued before the court that there were “sociological [and] psychological evils which attend interracial marriages.” They compared interracial couples to polygamy and incest and rape — arguments that anti-gay bigots would also make decades later.
The Lovings’ attorneys argued that anti-miscegenation laws violated the 14th Amendment, denying rights on the basis of race. “No one can articulate it better than Richard Loving,” declared attorney Bernard Cohen, “when he said to me, ‘Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.’”
It proved a persuasive argument, and two months later the court struck down anti-miscegenation laws across the country. Decades later, various federal courts would rely on that ruling when determining that the Supreme Court recognized a “fundamental right to marry.”
The Supreme Court itself would revisit those arguments in 2015, ruling that the Constitution protects same-sex couples just as it does interracial couples. That surely wasn’t something the court had in mind, way back in 1967, but the logic is inescapable: Equal rights mean equal rights for all.
Happy anniversary, Loving v. Virginia! We would have never had same-sex marriage without you.
This article was originally published on April 10, 2020. It has since been updated.