50 Years of Loving: The End of Interracial Marriage Bans

Loving v Virginia

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a historic decision that would set foundational legal precedent for equality and the fundamental Constitutional right to get married. A year before she died in 2008, Mildred Loving – the namesake at the center of the landmark case Loving v. Virginia made statements reaffirming the fight for equality and linking the fight for interracial marriage to the right for LGBTQ couples to marry.

When the Supreme Court delivered the Loving decision, sixteen states still had active miscegenation laws on their books.

Individual Rights Legacy

Peacock Panache syndicated contributor Sheila Kennedy touched on this before and it’s worth revisiting. Loving is important not only for its legal precedent, but its demonstration of a need for federal intervention to protect individual rights as outlined in the first ten constitutional amendments.

She said:

Loving is a great teaching tool, because it squarely addresses the central issue of public administration and political philosophy: what is the proper role of the state? What is government for? What sorts of decisions are appropriately made by legislatures acting on behalf of popular majorities, and what sorts of decisions represent an unwarranted intrusion into realms that should be left to individual citizens?

Despite the fact that our Constitution was based upon a belief in limited government, America’s history is replete with examples of the tensions between the respect for individual liberties that animates the Bill of Rights, and the desire of moralists to use government to control the behavior of their neighbors.

She later added:

It can be very difficult to agree upon the sorts of harms that justify government intervention, and there are many good-will disagreements over the propriety of such things as seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But it really strains credulity to argue that your choice of a non-traditional spouse somehow harms me.

Loving reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between issues that government can properly decide, and areas where government doesn’t belong.

Modern Relevance

Accompanying the significance it lends to protecting individual rights, the Loving decision continues to show the need for federalism in ensuring the civil rights of marginalized groups.

The decision itself supports an ongoing critical view of discriminatory public institutions. In their majority decision, the Supreme Court said:

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.

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 541 (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.

It was these and a handful of other passages the high court used a year ago in confirming same-sex couples also enjoyed a constitutional right to access the fundamental institution of marriage – and that bans on such access are unconstitutional. It’s a concept the Lovings supported explicitly.

Racial Justice

Other than providing a strong argument for other disenfranchised groups, the Loving decision ultimately opened the doors for mixed-race couples to marry without government interference. Though overturning bans on interracial marriage broke down one of the fundamental mechanisms of institutional racism, many more still exist that need to be dismantled.

According to the Pew Research Center, one in six couples marrying in the United States are comprised of different races/ethnic groups. That’s five times what the rate was when Loving broke down barriers.

While the nation still has miles to go in treating people of color equally, Loving represents a major milestone in that quest.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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