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Loving v. Virginia Still Relevant 40 Years Later

Dennis Parker,
Former Director,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
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October 19, 2009

More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared laws barring interracial marriage unconstitutional, it was upsetting to learn that a Louisiana justice of the peace has denied a marriage license to an interracial couple. On one hand, the public’s reaction to this terrible act shows we’ve come a long way since the Supreme Court ruled that preserving the racial integrity of its citizens does not justify Virginia’s law banning people of different races from marrying. Yet that this act could happen at all, especially by an official of the state of Louisiana, is still sobering.

Justice of the peace Keith Bardwell’s justification for refusing to issue the license is especially troubling. Bardwell told the Daily Star of Hammond, LA, that he was not a racist but merely concerned about the welfare of any children the couple may have.

Racism veiled in concern for children is nothing new. No doubt this same sentiment was expressed by many seemingly well-intended people back in 1958 when a sheriff and two deputies stormed the bedroom of Mildred and Richard Loving in the early morning, and arrested the couple because it was illegal under Virginia law for Richard, who was white, to be married to Mildred, who was black and Native American.

The couple eventually pled guilty to violating the law, and rather than spend a year in jail, they agreed to leave the state for 25 years. Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Mildred wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, asking him if the new law would allow them to live together in Virginia. Kennedy forwarded the letter to the ACLU, which persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1967 case, Loving v. Virginia, to strike the law.

The notion that government has any business meddling in matters of the heart is absurd. Why should government get to decide which couples are worthy of marriage and which aren’t? Fortunately, in the years since the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law, most people have come to realize that laws barring interracial marriage were based on nothing more than prejudice and deep-seated hostility that flew in the face of our nation’s promise of equality. And few people understood the pain that comes from that prejudice and hostility as well as Mildred Loving — who, just months before she died, issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in her case, urging support for marriage for lesbian and gay couples.

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