Posts Tagged ‘Bayard Rustin’

Mildred and Richard LovingFifty years ago last month, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter got married in the District of Columbia. Richard and Mildred met and fell in love in Caroline County, Virginia, where their families had lived for generations, but in 1958 interracial marriages were illegal in Virginia. Mildred said later that she didn’t even know about the law, but she thought Richard did. They went to D.C., picked a preacher out of the phone book, got married, and came home to Caroline County.

But Virginia, then as now, saw no reason to honor the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution. Getting married outside the state didn’t mean you were married in Virginia. In fact, the law specifically prohibited Virginia residents who couldn’t marry within the state from traveling outside the state to marry. (The same kind of law is still in effect in some states, and could be applied against same-sex couples from those states if they went to California or Canada to get married.) In July, Mildred and Richard were awakened at 2 a.m. to the sight of the sheriff standing at the foot of their bed. Caroline County Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks and two deputies shone flashlights into the couple’s faces.

Judge Leon Bazile“Who’s this woman you’re sleeping with?” barked the sheriff.

“I’m his wife,” said Mildred.

That’s when Mildred found out it was illegal for an interracial couple to marry in Virginia, and that it was illegal for an interracial couple in Virginia to go elsewhere to get married, too. The servants of the law rousted the couple out of bed and arrested them. At the October session of the Caroline County Circuit Court, a grand jury indicted them for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. On 6 January 1959, the Lovings pled guilty to the charge, and Judge Leon Bazile sentenced them to a year in prison, to be suspended on the condition that they leave the state and never return together for twenty-five years. Judge Bazile, not unlike today’s marriage opponents, invoked the will of God in his decision:

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.

The Lovings paid $72 in court costs (about $525 in 2008 dollars), packed their bags, and moved to the District of Columbia. Over the next few years, they made furtive visits to see their friends and relatives in Virginia, never traveling together. They didn’t like city life, and they wanted to go home for good. Neither one of them had ever lived anywhere but Caroline County before.

In 1963, Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy to ask him a question. If the Civil Rights Act were passed, would she and Richard be able to go home? Kennedy referred the Lovings to the American Civil Liberties Union, and soon they had attorneys, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop. With their help, the Lovings would challenge Virginia law.

Bernard S. CohenCohen told the Lovings some of the legal approaches they could take in the case, but the Lovings were quiet people, uninterested in constitutional law. They weren’t out to change the world; they just wanted to go home. Richard Loving said, “Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” Years later, Cohen recalled that when he told the Lovings their case would probably go to the Supreme Court, Richard’s jaw dropped.

On 8 November 1963, the Lovings filed suit in Virginia asking that their convictions be vacated on the grounds that Virginia’s marriage laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment. After nearly a year with no results, they filed a class action suit in the U.S. District Court on 28 October 1964, asking the Court to find Virginia’s marriage laws unconstitutional. On 22 January 1965, the state trial judge upheld the Lovings’ convictions, and they appealed to the state Supreme Court. The U.S. District Court continued the case to allow it to play out in Virginia.

The Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia reversed the Lovings’ convictions, but refused to recognize their marriage. The Court cited an earlier case that had said allowing interracial marriage would give rise to “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride.” As Cohen had predicted, the Lovings were headed for the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in December 1966, and heard arguments on 10 April 1967. Cohen declared, “The Lovings have the right to go to sleep at night knowing that if should they not wake in the morning, their children would have the right to inherit from them. They have the right to be secure in knowing that, if they go to sleep and do not wake in the morning, that one of them, a survivor of them, has the right to Social Security benefits.”

If you’ve been following the arguments against same-sex marriage, you can probably guess what Virginia’s arguments were. They said that the framers of the Constitution and the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment clearly didn’t intend to legalize interracial marriage. They said that marriage laws were not for the courts to decide, but should be up to the state legislatures. They said that Virginia’s marriage laws didn’t deny equal protection under the law, because everybody was equally allowed to marry a member of his own race. If you care about equal marriage, you’ve heard those same arguments more recently.

One of the ways conservatives both black and white try to discredit our movement is to say that it’s not like the African-American civil rights movement. Equality for lesbians and gay men is whole different kind of thing. People who ought to know better say that African-Americans deserve equal rights, but lesbians and gay men don’t. The immortal Coretta Scott King gave the lie to that argument, saying that her late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, supported equal rights for gay people. She reminded them, too, that the great civil rights hero Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the March on Washington, was gay.

Still people like the Kings’ daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, and her cousin Dr. Alveda King are not ashamed to belie themselves. They are not ashamed to use their famous name to fight for bigotry. Martin and Coretta King marched for equality; Bernice King marches for inequality. If there were a hell, it would gape for the likes of Bernice and Alveda King.

I want you to remember, even if some people prefer to forget, that the Commonwealth of Virginia used the same arguments against interracial marriage in 1967 that Christian zealots use against same-sex marriage today. This is the way it’s always been. The courts have no right to decide the issue. The laws as they stand don’t deny equal protection to anybody. Changing the law would be bad for children. Changing the law would be bad for society. It was bullshit then, and it’s bullshit now ― and now as then, everybody who isn’t blinded by bigotry and hatred knows it’s bullshit.

Chief Justice Earl WarrenBut back to the Lovings. On 12 June 1967, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the laws of the sixteen states that still prohibited interracial marriage. The Court said, in an opinion delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren:

These statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 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.

“I feel free now,” said Mildred Loving.

By that time, the Lovings had already moved back to Virginia. Today, the 12th of June is Loving Day, a celebration of the love between interracial couples, and the Lovings are heroes to millions. But the Lovings lived out the time left to them quietly. They lived seventeen years as man and wife, less than half of it in a marriage recognized by their home state. On 29 June 1975, a drunk driver hit their car, and Richard was killed. Mildred lost an eye, and her health was never the same, but she lived on for nearly thirty-three years as Richard’s widow. She never remarried. She died of pneumonia on 2 May 2008.

Mildred Loving never understood why she was a hero. The year before she died, she said, “It wasn’t my doing. It was God’s work.” She didn’t like to talk about herself; didn’t like to give interviews. When the preacher at her church compared her to Rosa Parks, she demurred.

“I don’t feel like that,” she said. “Not at all. What happened, we really didn’t intend for it to happen. What we wanted, we wanted to come home.”

Someday, America will do the right thing by its lesbian and gay citizens. Our fight may be tougher and longer than the Lovings’ fight, but we will win it. The preachers will fight us harder than they fought the Lovings, but we will win. The people who think they know the will of God, and think the law is a tool to force their religious superstitions on others, will fight us tooth and nail, but we will win. If we ever go to the Supreme Court, you can bet we won’t win a unanimous decision. We might not win at all the first time, but we will win eventually. There’s a black man living in Virginia today with his white wife, a man who sits on the Supreme Court, who’s likely to vote against us. But we will win.

The Christian bigots who fight against us know their day is nearly over; that’s why they’re so concerned to fight against us now, while they still can. They’re fighting for hate, though, and we’re fighting for love. I still believe that love is stronger than hate. Those who spread hate in the name of Jesus might win in California this November. They might even get the constitutional amendment they want. I don’t know if America is ready to do the right thing yet. Time will tell. But whatever they do today can be undone by the same process tomorrow. However long it takes, someday we’ll all feel free. Someday we can all go home.

For now, I’ll leave you with the words of Mildred Loving. On the fortieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, that quiet woman issued a statement:

Loving for All

By Mildred Loving

Prepared for Delivery on June 12, 2007,
The 40th Anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia Announcement

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.

We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the “crime” of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed.

The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared: “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.” He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.

We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn’t have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “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,” a “basic civil right.”

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

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.

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Bernard S. Cohen and Evan Wolfson have a blog.

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