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Loving in Black and White

Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 10, 2011

This month, a civil rights milestone — the 44th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the ACLU case, Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state bans on interracial marriage — will be heralded in a new documentary that will have an exclusive congressional screening. The Loving Story superbly chronicles the story of Mildred and Richard Lovings’ courageous fight and the Supreme Court decision that bears their name.

While for most Americans, Loving v. Virginia is just another distant civil rights event in America’s long civil and human rights journey, for me, the opposite is true. This case was one that not only changed the landscape of American culture; it has also touched me personally. As a black woman married to a white man and in my work at the ACLU, I am an advocate for the imperfect institution of marriage for everyone, including gay and lesbian couples.

To put this all in context, imagine that you are sitting next to me on the floor of the Murphy family living room in 1963, watching Leave it to Beaver on a black and white television set in a middle-class black home in a segregated neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland. I had a school-girl crush on Wally, the oldest son in the TV series. Unlike my three older brothers, Wally was patient, reasonable and rational. He was also white.

I was taught that my crush was wrong on at least two counts. First, after confessing my crush to my mother, I was told that I was too young to like boys. Second, my parents said that I could go to jail if I married a white man. (That just made my heart sink, as, clearly, I did not want to go to jail.) I can now see that my parents were not being mean; they were just being accurate. In fact, at the time of the Loving decision, 16 states still had bans against interracial marriage.

Unbeknownst to the grade-school me, some couples — like Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple behind the Supreme Court’s landmark decision and real-life heroes of The Loving Story — were rebelling against what they felt was an unjust law.

Mildred was black and Richard was white, and after they were legally married in the District of Columbia, the state of Virginia prosecuted them under its Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They were told to either accept a one-year jail sentence or leave the state of Virginia for 25 years. Then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy referred the couple to the ACLU and with the ACLU’s representation, the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, and in 1967, the Court’s unanimous decision struck down all remaining state bans on interracial marriage. It took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until 2000 to officially amend their states’ constitutions to remove language prohibiting miscegenation.

Fast forward from 1963 to 2003, 40 years after I was first told that interracial love was wrong, I found myself engaged to Bill, a wonderful guy who also happens to be white and who was able to merge seamlessly into my African-American family. Real-life experience convinced me that separating people based on the unscientific notion of race is indefensible and that love has no boundaries. In 2003, shortly after my father had passed away, the only thing I feared was that my mother would object. Instead, she said, “If you don’t marry Bill, I will!” A true revolution in my lifetime.

My story ends well; but sadly, many still struggle to marry the person they love. The changes brought about by the Loving v. Virginia decision still have not been fully realized and the protections and benefits of marriage are privileges given only to some.

To celebrate the anniversary of the Loving decision and to recognize the steps we have yet to take, the Loving documentary will have an exclusive screening on Capitol Hill on June 13. Quite fittingly, it will be co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The film uses rare archival footage, home movies, photographs, interviews with family, friends and other witnesses and poetic visual and narrative sequences to build a complex portrait of the couple at the heart of marriage equality in the United States. The film is currently screening at festivals across the nation and will have its national television premiere in early 2012 on HBO.

June 12 should be civil rights holiday, a great day for Americans, a great day for love, and a valentine to the Lovings. But the work to root out discrimination is not finished, we must make sure that every couple, regardless of sexual orientation, has the freedom to publicly declare its commitment to one another through marriage — and that every marriage is recognized and respected by the federal government. It’s up to us now.

(Originally posted in CongressBlog.)

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