‘Fifty-three years ago, today, a marriage like ours became possible in the United States,’ said my daughter-in-law as our family sat together in the living room last Friday night.
I am frequently humbled about all I take for granted, and I have been reminded repeatedly over the last few months as the United States has struggled with the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers, the repeated evidence of both our unconscious bias and blatant racism, and experiences I’ve had while our son and daughter-in-law have been living with us during the pandemic.
I grew up believing the police were a benevolent force that existed to keep my family and I safe from the bad guys. As an adult my view became more complicated after a personal experience, hearing about frightening encounters from law-abiding friends who weren’t white like me, and a brother-in-law I love and respect moving from the Marine Corps to law enforcement. The 2016 shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop and the video of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter in the back of the squad car begging her handcuffed mom to calm down so she doesn’t ‘get shooted too’ continues to haunt me. My midwestern childhood and hers were worlds apart; much of it due to the color of her skin. And my future grandchildren may be faced with challenges for the same reason.
When I was born it was illegal for people of different races to marry in 22 states, and while some revoked their miscegenation laws over the years, it wasn’t until 1967 that marriage between a white person and someone of another race was permitted across the United States.
In 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter traveled to Washington, D.C. to marry while residing in their home state of Virginia and were arrested five weeks later after an anonymous tip led the local sheriff to raid their home at 2 am. They were jailed under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and given the choice to leave the state or go to prison. They spent the next nine years living in Washington, D.C. where their marriage was legal, but they missed their families and the rural area where they grew up. Inspired by the civil rights movement, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help, and he directed them to the American Civil Liberties Union, who took their case.
After working their way through the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeal, where the court ruled that the state had an interest in preserving the racial integrity of its constituents, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court reversed the Virginia Court’s ruling and concluded the law was rooted in racial discrimination, making it impossible to satisfy a compelling government interest.
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.” The court’s decision, which was made on June 12, 1967, has been commemorated as Loving Day and a movie released in 2016, Loving, tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Loving’s struggle.
Acceptance and change are difficult. Even with the Supreme Court ruling, Alabama kept its (unenforceable) ban against interracial marriages in place until 2000, while South Carolina removed its ban in November of 1998. But our society is changing.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, the share of U.S. adults saying people marrying someone of a different race is good for society rose from 24% to 39% between 2010 and March 2017, and the decline in opposition to intermarriage fell from 63% in 1990 to 14% in 2017, with those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher having a higher probability of being in an interracial marriage. But there is still a sharp partisan divide in attitudes.
For some, calling out racial bias and prejudice in our society is perceived as an attack on law enforcement and a threat to whites. I believe we can address the flaws in our systems and admit to our conscious and unconscious biases without throwing our society into anarchy and destroying the positive portions that we want to preserve.
Republican Senator Rob Portman experienced a dramatic reversal of opinion on gay marriage seven years ago, after his son told his parents he was gay. I can only hope if there are more blended families like ours in the world, the color of a person’s skin will become irrelevant, and every day can be Loving Day.