Most cases that come before the U.S. Supreme Court are fairly dry, even if they are important issues for the Court to consider. But sometimes, a case arises that makes for a great story. Loving v. Virginia (1967) is one of those cases. At its heart, it's a love story.
Of course, Loving's importance in American jurisprudence should not be downplayed. The Supreme Court decision in Loving was a significant victory for civil rights, ending all bans on interracial marriage in the U.S. for good. Along with Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia captured the civil rights movement of the 1960s and helped bring about lasting -- if still incomplete -- change.
A Bittersweet Love Story
Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving grew up in Central Point, a small unincorporated community in Virginia about an hour's drive north of Richmond. Both were born during the Great Depression. What made Central Point somewhat unique for the time was the small and racially mixed makeup of its residents. Mildred identified culturally as Native American and had Rappahannock ancestry. While the courts labeled her a "negro," she did not identify as African American, only as a Native American. Richard Loving was white with European ancestry.
Richard's father worked for one of the wealthiest Black men in the county. As a child, he played with Mildred's brothers and other Black and Native American children. When Mildred was in high school, she began dating Richard, who had gone into construction, and only a few within that small rural area found it to be an issue that a white man and a "colored" woman were romantically involved.
By 1958, when Mildred was 18, they became pregnant and went to Washington, D.C., to marry. They had three children together and eventually many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were together until Richard's untimely death in 1975 when the family car was hit by a drunk driver. Mildred Loving survived the crash and never remarried. She passed away in 2008.
Virginia's Anti-Miscegenation Law
The couple seems to have had a sweet, if not particularly unusual, story. Except that when the Lovings got married, Virginia made interracial marriage a crime. That is why they had to go to Washington, D.C., to marry.
Just five weeks after they came home as newlyweds, a sheriff came to the home in the middle of the night to arrest the couple for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. "Miscegenation" is a term for mixed-race couples used around the Civil War era. It derives from the Latin miscere (to mix) and genus (race).
After their arrest, Richard and Mildred Loving pleaded guilty, as there was no denying they had violated Virginia's racist law. The judge sentenced them to one year of imprisonment, but offered to suspend their sentence if they left the state. The trial judge offered in his opinion that "the fact that [God] separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." With this poorly reasoned opinion, the trial judge forced the Lovings to leave their home.
The Lovings complied with the sentencing but missed Central Point. Washington, D.C., did not fit the couple's lifestyle, and they wanted to return to their rural farming community.
Wanting to go home but afraid of going to jail, Mildred Loving contacted Robert F. Kennedy, then the Attorney General of the United States. The couple began working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at his recommendation. In 1963, young ACLU attorney Bernard S. Cohen helped the Lovings file a lawsuit in Virginia challenging Virginia's anti-miscegenation law as an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Miscegenation Laws At the Time of Loving v. Virginia
The Lovings were not the first interracial couple to challenge the constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws. In 1955, the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia held in Naim v. Naim that the state had wide latitude under the Constitution to regulate marriage and that prohibiting interracial marriage was a legitimate state purpose.
In reality, the Virginia Supreme Court relied less on constitutional analysis than on white supremacy, with Virginia's highest court writing that Virginia had a legitimate purpose "to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens" and prevent "the corruption of blood." Those words were chilling even at the time, just ten years after the end of World War II and its atrocities.
In 1963, when the Lovings first filed their lawsuit, only one Court - the California Supreme Court - had held an anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional. By 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia, 17 states still had those laws on the books. With its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ended those laws for good.
Loving v. Virginia Case Summary
In Loving v. Virginia, a unanimous Supreme Court held in 1967 that laws prohibiting interracial marriage violated both the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the Court, yet another notable decision taken on by the Warren court (Justice Warren also wrote the majority opinion for Brown v. Board of Education).
While both due process and equal protection originate from the Fourteenth Amendment, they are separate legal doctrines that have impacted Supreme Court jurisprudence in their own ways. But in order to understand the Warren Court's reasoning in Loving, it's important to note a few things about the Fourteenth Amendment.
During post-Civil War Reconstruction, Congress passed three Amendments: the Thirteenth Amendment (making slavery illegal), the Fourteenth Amendment (that fundamentally shifted the relationship between the federal government and the states), and the Fifteenth Amendment (forbidding racial discrimination in elections).
The Fourteenth Amendment continues to be the most controversial and far-reaching of the Reconstruction Amendments. It grants broad rights to all citizens, regardless of race. Specifically, it mandates that:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Through the Fourteenth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court can declare state laws unconstitutional if those laws violate due process or equal protection. In the case of Loving v. Virginia, it violated both.
Virginia had two primary arguments for why its anti-miscegenation statute was constitutional. First, it argued that it treated all races equally - by punishing both the white and Black spouses in an interracial marriage the same. Both Lovings received the same punishment.
The second argument was even worse. Virginia argued that "scientific evidence is substantially in doubt" about whether interracial marriages could harm Virginia's population, presumably by creating "a mongrel breed of citizens," and leading to "the obliteration of racial pride." (These are two direct quotes from Naim v. Naim). Virginia argued that even if its law violated equal protection, the Supreme Court should defer to the state legislature regarding the "scientific evidence" it used to create its racist law.
The Supreme Court didn't buy it. "There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. "The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy." Virginia's argument that the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 involved an equal application of the law was just a thinly veiled argument for white supremacy.
Put simply, it was clearly a racist law, and in order for such a law to be constitutional, the state would have to show there was a clear and overriding interest the state was protecting (this level of review is now known as "strict scrutiny").
Here, there was no other justification than racism. Justice Warren cited the infamous Korematsu v. United States decision, holding that "the Equal Protection Clause demands that racial classifications, especially suspect in criminal statutes, be subjected to the 'most rigid scrutiny."
Virginia argued that Congress did not intend for the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent anti-miscegenation laws, as there were such laws in existence at the time of its passing. Again, however, the Court did not find this argument persuasive, as the Warren Court did not hold to an originalist view of constitutional interpretation, instead writing that protecting society's increased understanding of racial equality was well within the spirit and intent of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court's decision spent much less time in declaring the law as violative of due process. "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men," Warren wrote succinctly, and "classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, [surely] deprive[s] all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law."
While there is limited analysis of due process violations in the case itself, the holding clearly states that the right to marry, regardless of race or ethnicity, is a fundamental right granted by due process. Other cases have since expanded on due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, including Griswold v. Connecticut (the right to birth control) and Roe v. Wade (the right to control over reproductive health). However, as demonstrated by the Supreme Court's recent overturning of Roe, due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment remain controversial for conservative justices.
However, even if the Supreme Court were to completely eliminate substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court could still uphold Loving based on its equal protection argument.
The Legacy of Loving v. Virginia
Still one of the most well-known Supreme Court cases in history, the unanimous decision that dismantled many states' attempts at enforcing a racial hierarchy is still celebrated today as one of the Supreme Court's finest achievements.
In addition to its legacy as a landmark civil rights case, the Loving opinion laid part of the groundwork for future cases involving due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Without Loving, the Court may not have held as it did in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood. The equal protection holding in Loving helped the Court prohibit bans on same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.
As for Mildred Loving, she released a statement on the 40th anniversary of the decision that sums it up nicely:
I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.
Read the full case on FindLaw's Cases and Codes.