Last night, LitSpouse and I attended a viewing of the documentary The Loving Story and a panel discussion afterwards about the Supreme Court case that ended miscegenation laws. It was eye-opening in many ways; I encourage people to become familiar with Loving v. Virginia and to see the movie if they enjoy documentaries. The most interesting parts were comments made by the panelists about the relevance of the same ideas and arguments in many of today’s discourses about marriage, equality, rights, and liberties.

In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were convicted of being in an interracial marriage (to which they pled guilty, because they were) and sentenced to one year in jail, with the sentence suspended if they left Virginia for the next 25 years. They were from a very rural part of Virginia and had a hard time adapting to living in urban DC; they wanted to live near their families. The film does an excellent job of describing the legal wrangling that followed, using film footage from the early 1960s of the Lovings, their lawyers, and contemporary news broadcasts about the issue. When the case went to the Supreme Court in 1967, Virginia’s law against interracial marriage was declared unconstitutional, along with similar laws in 15 other states.

Some of the details in the film are really amazing; I had no idea this case, and the subsequent elimination of these laws, was so recent. (I first learned the word “miscegenation” in ninth grade when my high school was doing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Showboat. I had to ask my mother why the mixed-race family had to move away when their background was discovered. I suppose that’s progress of a sort, although ignorance of history is not the coin with which I would buy that kind of progress.)

The film really focuses on Mildred Loving, as she is the most moving character of the whole story, and manages to be emotionally engaging and present relevant information at the same time. If documentary films aren’t your cup of tea, the Wikipedia article linked above has some of the same details, including the breathtakingly racist opinion rendered by the Virginia court, but to see Mildred Loving as a person, the film is your best bet.

The panel discussion afterwards included Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Phip Hirschkop, one of the original attorneys to argue Loving v. Virginia before the Supreme Court, and Nancy Buirsky, filmmaker.

Ms. Buirsky said openly that one of the goals of the film was to create empathy through a personal connection between the viewer and Mildred Loving. (It’s not that her husband wasn’t an empathetic figure; it’s that he was extremely laconic, so most of the commentary on how they just wanted to live a quiet life together came from Mildred. Some of the photos of the two of them helped me connect with him, but he was manifestly uncomfortable in front of video cameras.) Ms. Buirsky’s explicit acknowledgment of the role empathy plays in our social discourse and changing attitudes was refreshingly realistic.

Rep. Scott spoke about the spirit of the times in the late 1960s and how much change there has – and has not – been since then on matters of discrimination. He said that many people misread Brown v. Board of Education as implying that equal provision in separated circumstances would be permissible; he emphasized that Brown v. Board found separation itself to be unconstitutional. He said that he thought civil rights legislation was being undermined by “faith-based” initiatives today: the government tells private business owners that they can’t discriminate in hiring employees who they’ll pay with their own money, while the government gives money to organizations who are legally allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices.

Rep. Nadler spoke movingly about how he saw a lot of the history of this country as an expansion of the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, especially expansions like including women and people of all races as “equal,” or at least trying to.

Mr. Hirschkop followed that up by saying that he found the next phrase even more important, “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Those rights, he argued, are not granted by society, they are ours at birth, and society has to learn to protect them.

Some discussion followed about how the Loving case is and isn’t a precedent for the fight for marriage equality for QUILTBAG people today. The most telling point on that front, for me, was when the film played a recording of the attorney general for Virginia in the Loving case arguing that the state needed to prevent interracial marriage to protect the children. [1]

When I hear conservatives fighting a rearguard action against marriage equality using the same arguments today, and being eloquently refuted by the children they purport to protect, I am certain, in a way I never have been before, that marriage equality will come to pass. [2]

As we left the screening, which was held in the US Capitol Visitors’ Center, the setting sun made the Supreme Court building positively seem to glow. You can’t read it in the photo, but that frieze on top of the Supreme Court building reads “Equal Justice Under Law.” May it be so!

[1] One of the justices asked him if that wasn’t similar to the argument made in Brown v. Board, and he said it was. Brown had been decided 13 years earlier, so aligning one’s position with the losing arguments in a previous case is what I believe lawyers refer to as “not a wise move.”

[2] For more on the historical changes in state and religious regulation of marriage, see Stephanie Coontz’ excellent article.

Edited for clarity and flow and to add link in endnotes.

6 thoughts on “Loving v. Virginia, 44 years on

  1. This may be a minor point, but the use of the word “character” in this sentence “The film really focuses on Mildred Loving, as she is the most moving character of the whole story, and manages to be emotionally engaging and present relevant information and storyline,” really bugged me. It makes it sound like she’s someone in a work of fiction, not a documentary. I think “figure” or “person” would work better.

    1. Hmm. I see your point, and I don’t want to diminish Mildred Loving as a person, but since we talked with the filmmaker afterwards, it was very clear to me that this was a constructed work, a deliberate representation or characterization of Mildred Loving. Not a caricature, but not the totality of who she was, either.

  2. Way late on this, but I just wanted to comment on:
    The most telling point on that front, for me, was when the film played a recording of the attorney general for Virginia in the Loving case arguing that the state needed to prevent interracial marriage to protect the children…One of the justices asked him if that wasn’t similar to the argument made in Brown v. Board, and he said it was.
    I’m currently reading At the Dark End of the Street, by Danielle McGuire. It’s a history of the civil rights movement from the point of view of the black women who, under segregation, were the targets of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape, for which the perpetrators were rarely even indicted, let alone convicted. Because the “miscegenation” laws were never about sex, at least not about sex between white men and black women, regardless of “the children.” Like the rest of the Jim Crow system, they were about institutionalizing inequality. The white segregationists of the ’40s and’50s were quite open in equating public integration, even for something as trivial as a bus ride, with “social equality” with intermarriage. The whole segregationist structure functioned to restrict the sexual choices of white women, to keep black men intimidated by the threat of rape accusations, and to leave black women vulnerable to abuse from white men; legal interracial marriage, as an undeniable statement of equality, was a final nail for its coffin.

    Chief Justice Warren wrote that Fourteenth Amendment requires that “the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination.” Sounds applicable to other kinds of invidious discrimination, to me.

    On “character” vs. “person:” Every time I read another memoir, I swear it’ll be the last. What gives you (the memoirist) the right to turn a real person into a character in your story?

    A historical documentary is a different kettle of fish, especially one that’s made with the cooperation of its subjects. But still, it is, as you put it, a constructed work. It tells a truth, but it’s never the whole truth; it can’t be.

    1. Amaryllis, thank you so much. I totally neglected that important point. The film did a slightly better job than I did and alluded to fear and “protecting” white women from black men, but didn’t go into the complexities of the reversed situation, as in the Loving case. LitSpouse and I exchanged a few snide comments about Virginia law and Thomas Jefferson, too, and I still didn’t try to put that aspect of the picture together. Sorry; I guess the ACLU’s framing, aimed at the present, was pretty effective after all.

      The book sounds interesting; would you recommend it? Is it well-written?

  3. Hey, my comment wasn’t meant as criticism, just an elaboration on a point where, as so often happens, one of my favorite blogs overlapped with What I’m Reading.

    The book is interesting; I haven’t finished it yet, so I can’t comment on the overall effect. The writing is okay, maybe a little jargon-laden now and then, but at least she sources all her materials. And it does presents a point of view that we don’t hear too much about, in general. I knew, for instance, that Rosa Parks was more complicated than “respectable seamstress too tired to stand up;” she was a long-time activist who knew her moment when it presented itself. I knew that, although there were reasons why the Montgomery bus boycott leadership was publicly presented as male, women did most of the preparatory and support work for it. What I had NOT quite realized was how much of these women’s work–Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, and the rest– in the 40s’ and 50’s was directed at demanding justice for black women who were victims of sexual abuse. Or, if justice was unobtainable as it so often was, at least to promote awareness in place of ignorance, and provoke outrage instead of tolerance of the intolerable.

    Yeah, from Jefferson and his fellow slaveholders on, there was plenty of sex, consensual or otherwise, between white men and black women. People being people, there were also relationships, more or less clandestine, between black men and white women. But marriage, now…marriage implies equality. As has been said, marriage is, socially speaking, about acquiring in-laws. It’s about connections between families. For a white person to legally marry a black lover is a statement that one group of people is as good as the other. And if you have to admit that, well, there goes your whole race-based power structure.

    Now that I come to think of it, though, same-sex marriage equality is kind of the inverse case, isn’t it? That is, “traditional” man-woman marriage may imply parity between families, but can be quite unequal in terms of gender-based individual status. But if one can marry a lover of either gender, that’s a statement about individual equality: one person is as good as another. And if you have to admit that, well, there goes your whole gender-based power structure.

    Oh well. Excuse my blethering on, I’m just thinking out loud. I’d better go read my book now.

    1. Oh, I didn’t take it as negative criticism – I was really glad you pointed out that angle that I was missing!

      I wonder if part of the problem was that even in the 50s, people were starting to see marriage as, as you imply, about partnership rather than control or possession. Even if people didn’t start talking in those terms more widely until the feminism of the 60s and 70s, there was a visible potential trajectory there for marriage to move towards parity, and I’d imagine that was seen (or at least felt) as a reason for retrenchment against things like Loving v. Virginia.

      Blether away; think out loud, please! This is what I love to see in comments!

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