Monday, January 28, 2008

Race - Part II: Loving vs Virginia

Posted by Bruce Miller
As previously mentioned, most of the complaints I receive from offended audience members are about language. The second biggest grievance is sex, closely followed by the third major offender, race. Among the racial objections I receive, most document a strong distaste for any onstage depiction of interracial romance. Call it the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner objection.

To an extent, this issue used to split on the “religious right” / “religious left” divide as well as the fault line that separates political conservatives from liberals. But now that Barack Obama and Tiger Woods stand as the two most recognizable children of interracial marriage … now that a conservative icon like Clarence Thomas walks proudly arm in arm with his Caucasian wife … now, I daresay, objections to interracial romance are more generational than anything else.

Before discussing the particulars of present day grievances, let’s look at the history that forged the attitudes of most of the grumblers. As many of you may know, our home state of Virginia played an infamous role in that history.

Virginia is for Lovers. That’s the way the slogan goes. But in 1958, for Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (pictured to the left), it must not have felt that way. Richard was white, and Mildred was of “mixed blood” (white, African American and Native American). After seven years of friendship and courtship, they married in Washington D. C. and then returned home to live in peace in Central Point, about an hour northeast of Richmond, halfway between Bowling Green and Tappahannock.

Less than a month after their wedding, the local sheriff’s department raided their home at 2 a.m., roused them from their sleep, and hauled them away to face the law. The anti-miscegenation statutes in Virginia and 15 other states (mostly Southern) prohibited the marriage of whites and “non-whites.” Richard and Mildred were arrested and charged with a felony for “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They were tried in the county courthouse in Bowling Green. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a year behind bars—Virginia law requiring a prison term of one to five years.

The judge agreed to set the punishment aside, however, if they promised to leave Virginia immediately and not return together for 25 years. He justified his verdict as follows: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." (From the end of WWI until the sixties, the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel [pictured above and to the right in a Bruegel painting], found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, was used by numerous religious faiths as proof that God intended the races to remain separate. It was also used as a Biblical foundation for racism and Jim Crow laws.)

For the next several years, the Lovings lived in a Washington D. C. ghetto, while keeping and occasionally visiting their modest Virginia home. They always drove in separate cars, and met covertly while in Virginia to avoid incarceration. In 1963, after one of her three children was hit by a car in their D. C. neighborhood, Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to represent the Loving couple in an appeal of their conviction.

During four years of subsequent litigation, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s verdict. Finally, in 1967, in the aptly named Loving vs. Virginia, the U. S. Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren (pictured to the right), voted unanimously to overturn the conviction on the grounds that the Virginia law that forbad interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Only then did the American South finally become one of the last places in the world to do away with anti-miscegenation laws. Other holdouts included Nazi Germany which overturned its laws in 1945, and South Africa under Apartheid which abandoned its laws in 1985.

Coincidentally, 1967 was also the year that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner made it into the nation's movie theatres.

To view the amazing, actual ABC News report that was broadcast in 1967 (including footage of Mildred and Richard Loving and their three children), go to

On a personal note, the Virginia law defined “non-white” as someone who had “one eighth blood” of a minority population. My wife’s (Terrie’s) great grandmother was full-blooded Oklahoma Cherokee. Her grandfather was one half Cherokee, her mother is one quarter Cherokee, and Terrie herself is one eighth Cherokee. Terrie and I were married only 19 years after Loving vs. Virginia. Had the Virginia law not been overturned, Terrie’s and my marriage would not be legally recognized. Moreover, Terrie’s mom and dad, married in Norfolk, VA 13 years before Loving vs. Virginia, were married illegally under the law of the day. Had they been turned in to the police, as the Lovings were, it’s possible that they too could have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to one to five years in prison.

Coming soon – How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution contributed to anti-miscegenation sentiments.
--Bruce Miller


Helen Stanford said...

Unbelievable. I knew nothing about this, I guess because I came here from Indiana. It's an AMAZING story, and the video of the Lovings from 1967 is a treasure. Thanks so much for writing about this and finding the video. To think that people raised under this law are the ones who still object to your efforts at colorblind casting is sad, but it certainly provides context.

pnlkotula said...

I asked for it, and you brought it, and I can't comment. It hurts my heart and humbles me and shames me that aside from the personal choices I make to not be that person, I've not actively done anything to promote change in the world. Thanks for the eye-opener, I think.