If you hear the words “Loving Day” and think I’m referencing a pop culture holiday on February 14th, then read on – ’cause you’re mistaken. Loving Day, feted annually on June 12th, is not just a Hallmark holiday orchestrated to push the sale of greeting cards and chocolate hearts like its February cousin. Rather, it’s a serious celebration of a landmark Supreme Court decision about personal freedom. Why is it called Loving Day, you ask?
Well, never had a Supreme Court case been so aptly named as Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 decision that nullified a state law banning interracial marriage. The case secured the legal right of citizens in all states to marry they people they love without regard to race, a move with which only the most bigoted of Americans would now disagree. Loving Day, observed on June 12th to coincide with the anniversary of the decision, exists to celebrate the legal right to interracial marriage. This hard-won battle helped to shape the ongoing civil rights movement, and Loving Day honors the couple who waged this fight and all the couples who came before and after.
Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, her white boyfriend, were residents of Virginia who wanted to get married in the late 1950s. Because the state of Virginia had a law (boldly titled the “Racial Integrity Act of 1924”) which denied marriage rights to people of different races, the couple got married in the District of Columbia and then returned to Virginia, where they were actually arrested for a felony! Although Jeter and Loving were sentenced to a year in jail for breaking the law, a Virginia judge agreed to suspend the sentence if the couple left the state. And that’s exactly what they did. But Loving and his wife didn’t leave quietly: they moved to DC and began fighting the unfair law in 1963.
At that time, sixteen states still had laws on the books banning all forms of interracial marriage, with some (like the Virginia law) explicitly preventing blacks from marrying whites. If you visit the official website of Loving Day, www.lovingday.org, you can use their “legal map” feature like a wayback machine. Select any year between American independence in 1780 and the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967, and you can see exactly which states had laws prohibiting interracial marriage. (Marriage laws are traditionally an area of state domain based on constitutional law.)
The first state to allow interracial marriage was, perhaps not surprisingly, Pennsylvania. They did so in 1780 – just four years after we became a country. It was legal for a black person to marry a white person in Pennsylvania in the late 18th century, even though the vast majority of black Americans were still slaves. Over the next 150 years, most other states, new and old, followed suit. By 1966, the year before the Loving case was ultimately decided, interracial marriage was legal in most states except – you guessed it – the stubborn ones below the old Mason-Dixon line.
Just years after school segregation (something far less personal than marriage) was outlawed, the Loving couple eventually won in 1967 – only after taking their battle through to the highest court in the land. Interracial marriage bans were finally declared unconstitutional on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment and its equal protection clause. Can you believe that was less than 50 years ago?
Now, June 12th is Loving Day, aptly named in honor of the couple who finally put the prejudiced laws to death and the human emotion that conquers all. Although some people still harbor negative feelings about interracial marriage, our society has come a long way since the 1960s and most folks can accept and embrace marriage between persons of different races. Of course, Loving Day as a holiday was started to ensure that we do not forget the struggles of generations past and that we do not take our rights for granted. June 12th is a day to take pause, reflect, and celebrate our legal rights.
Of course, given the heated battles over same-sex marriage these days, we know that not all loving couples are necessarily afforded the right to marry. Gay and lesbian couples are denied marriage in all but one state: Massachusetts. Some people, myself included, see a powerful connection between the Loving v. Virginia case and the marriage equality movement for same-sex partners. Other people claim the issues are markedly different and that same-sex inclusion “redefines” marriage in too radical a way. Of course, that’s what people thought about interracial marriage when they enacted laws like the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They thought that allowing two people of different races to marry was radical and wrong, but the prevailing national sentiment finally changed. I would encourage everyone to recognize Loving Day this June 12th to celebrate the legal right to interracial marriage, but I believe we should continue the fight for marriage equality in the tradition of Loving.
For more information on celebrating Loving Day, including details on events and e-cards, visit www.lovingday.org. Be sure to check out the “resources” section, which lists organizations, books, movies, and businesses that are part of the June 12th Loving Day legacy.