“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.”
— Chief Justice Earl Warren
Loving v. Virginia, 1967
“The vitriolic tongues or pens of angry little men can be just as murderous as the sword or bomb in the hands of a maniac.”
— Rev. Dr. Everett Tilson
April 25, 1960
Mildred Delores Jeter and Richard Perry Loving were a loving couple. Residents of Caroline County, Virginia, they wished to be married. Unfortunately for them, in 1958, their marriage was illegal in the state of Virginia, just as it was in much of the south. They drove instead to the District of Columbia and were married there. Returning to Virginia to settle down, their lives were turned upside down when they were arrested, in the middle of the night, in their bed, by the county sheriff.
Their crime? Richard Loving was white. His wife was part African American and part Rappahannock Indian. Their very marital existence in Virginia was a felony. They were both charged and convicted. The judge sentenced them to one year incarceration and suspended the sentence on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return for at least 25 years.
They moved to Washington but sued their old home state. The Virginia Supreme Court was unsympathetic, and although it vacated their original conviction, it upheld the state’s “Racial Integrity Act” stating that the law had valid purposes, including preventing “the corruption of blood” and “the obliteration of racial pride.” The Lovings appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States and 52 years ago this week, in a 9-0 decision, the court struck down the law as unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, in his written decision, stated that these justifications were nothing more than “an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy.” He made clear that no such state statutes banning inter-racial marriage could survive (and there were still 17 states that had such laws at the time). Warren concluded, “There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification.”
When the Supreme Court has spoken so clearly and forcefully, you might think it would be the case that the issue is settled and will never raise its ugly head again. Well, not so fast. Just a decade ago, an interracial couple in Louisiana contacted a local Justice of the Peace to arrange a marriage ceremony. The justice, Keith Bardwell, refused to perform the marriage. He insisted that he wasn’t a racist (noting that he has “piles and piles of black friends” and “they use my bathroom”) but claimed that he wouldn’t perform interracial marriages because he believes they don’t last long. He was, perhaps, unaware of the multiple studies that found that no such disparity existed. Then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called for his resignation, and Bardwell resigned just two weeks later.
His attitude wouldn’t have been surprising 50 years ago. In fact, most states have had a law banning interracial marriage at some time. Ohio repealed its statute in 1887 and was the last state to do so for a 60-year period. In 1948, some 30 states still had such laws. In 1958, a Gallup survey found that a whopping 94% of Americans were opposed to interracial marriages. It wasn’t until 1991 that the same Gallup survey found a majority of Americans approving of them. In the most recent survey in 2007, the approval was up to 77%.
Delaware was home to a key figure in the movement to change that public opinion. Many people used Biblical passages to support their discriminatory views. The seminal work debunking that theory was “Segregation and the Bible,” a 1958 book by the Rev. Dr. Everett Tilson, who would later serve at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio right here in Delaware. In a famous speech to the Nashville Christian Leadership Council in 1960, he said, “Our Christian churches do not oppose segregation because it is illegal; they oppose segregation because it is immoral. They do not oppose it because it is unconstitutional; they oppose it because it is unchristian. They do not oppose it because it breaches the ten amendments; they oppose it because it breaches the Ten Commandments.”
The Lovings had three children and several grandchildren. Richard was killed by a drunk driver in 1975, and Mildred died in 2008 at the age of 68. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in her case, she issued a statement saying, “Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me.” Their story was the subject of a major motion picture in 2016.
You can listen to the arguments of the attorneys in the Loving case and the questions posed to them by the justices at www.oyez.org.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.