Loving vs. Virginia: The Freedom to Love Goes on Trial
By the mid‐20th century, forty‐one states had passed legislation that criminalized interracial relationships. The ban on what was then known as “miscegenation” was an overt expression of white supremacy.
Loving vs Virginia was a landmark 1967 US Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were in violation of the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. This ruling struck down prevailing state anti‐miscegenation laws that had long prohibited these forms of partnerships in order to promote a (mostly imagined) racial purity and to assert white supremacist dominance.
As early as colonial times, laws banning any form of marriage or sexual relationship between the races were commonplace. Indeed, of the eventual 50 states, all but nine banned interracial marriage.
Early attempts to dispute these bans met with little success. For example, in 1883 the case of Pace v. Alabama went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Alabama’s anti‐miscegenation law was constitutional because blacks and whites were being punished equally. In another 1888 case, the high court gave states the authority to become sole arbiters of their marriage laws.
Even so, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass embraced the cause of interracial marriage. His second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, was a white woman. Facing pressure in both abolitionist and pro‐slavery circles for his interracial marriage, Douglass once responded:
“What business has the world with the color of my wife?”
And as his wife noted:
“Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”1
In the book Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, Ida—a crusading anti‐lynching activist, journalist, and personal friend of Douglass—noted:
”I, too, would have preferred that Mr. Douglass had chosen one of the beautiful, charming colored women of my race for his second wife. But he loved Helen Pitts and married her and it was outrageous that they should be crucified by both black and white people for so doing. The more I saw of them, the more I admired them both for the patient, uncompromising way they met the sneers and discourtesies heaped upon them, especially Mrs. Douglass, who lived for some years after her distinguished husband passed on.”
It would be the better part of another century before the next serious blow to these bans. In 1948 the California Supreme Court ruled in Perez v. Sharp that California’s anti‐miscegenation statute was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a result of that ruling, California became only the second state to repeal an interracial marriage ban. (Ohio had done so in 1887.)
By the 1950s, over half of the U.S. states — including every state in the South — still had laws restricting interracial marriage on the books, but as the civil rights movement changed attitudes and challenged Jim Crow segregation, there was growing interest among legal activists for a test case of the remaining anti‐miscegenation laws. They found the perfect couple with plaintiffs Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and a black woman whose marriage was considered illegal according to Virginia state law. The two were longtime friends who had fallen in love. In 1958, they exchanged wedding vows in Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was considered legal. The couple then returned shortly thereafter to their home in the State of Virginia.2
On July 11, 1958, a few short weeks after their wedding, the Lovings were awakened in the early hours of the morning and arrested by the local sheriff. They were later indicted for violating Virginia’s anti‐miscegenation law, a felony offense, and sentenced to a year in jail. The trial judge then agreed to suspend the sentence so long as the Lovings left the state and did not return for at least 25 years.
After moving back to Washington, D.C., the couple raised three children. Yet they longed to return to Virginia, their home state. In 1963, Mildred penned a letter to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy requesting guidance about their plight. Kennedy encouraged the Lovings to take their case to the American Civil Liberties Union, which they agreed to do.
With the ACLU’s support, the Loving’s case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the “anti‐miscegenation” statutes were unconstitutional. The Lovings returned to Virginia after the ruling.
As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.“3
Today, Loving vs Virginia is viewed as a pivotal achievement in the elimination of Jim Crow segregation. After the Court’s ruling, Americans were legally allowed to marry someone of any racial background regardless of their state of residence. Even so, it was not until 2000 that the last state, Alabama, formally rescinded its anti‐miscegenation statute.
Loving v. Viginia continues to be an important legal precedent today. In the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage across the United States, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the ruling in his court opinion stating:
…the Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution. For example, Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1, 12, invalidated bans on interracial unions. 4
The Loving vs Virginia case underscores a key libertarian aim, protecting personal liberty from government impairment. Individuals ought to have inviolable ownership over their own bodies and persons. Accordingly, governments should not claim the authority to prevent consenting adults from exercising free choice in their personal relationships and marriages.