When I taught a graduate seminar this past winter, I asked the class if anyone knew what the word “miscegenation” meant. No one did. And, when I teach at the undergraduate level, it’s the rare student who knows the meaning of that word at the beginning of the semester (they usually know it by the time the semester ends). So, I thought it important to recognize the passing of one of the pioneers in ending the anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S.
Mildred Loving, (pictured with her husband, Richard P. Loving, in a file photo dated 1965, from here), a black woman whose challenge to Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling, died Friday, May 2, 2008 at her home in rural Virginia, her daughter said today. She was 68. From the AP story by Dionne Walker (and a hat tip to my friend Paul at BS for telling me about this):
Loving and her white husband, Richard, changed history in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their right to marry. The ruling struck down laws banning racially mixed marriages in at least 17 states.
“There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the equal protection clause,” the court ruled in a unanimous decision.
Her husband died in 1975. Shy and soft-spoken, Loving shunned publicity and in a rare interview with The Associated Press last June, insisted she never wanted to be a hero — just a bride.
“It wasn’t my doing,” Loving said. “It was God’s work.”
While Loving may have diminished her role as an activist she nevertheless delivered a powerful statement on the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision. Here’s a brief excerpt from Slaves of Academe (full text available there):
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.
Powerful words from a woman who claimed not to be an activist. So, why does it matter that I teach my students about the meaning of “miscegenation” when the courts ruled anti-miscegenation laws illegal in 1967? I think it’s important for what it tells us about how white racism operates then and how that same (il)logic continues to work today. In an interesting analysis over at The Faculty Lounge, Katheleen Bergin writes:
Loving is usually described as an “inter-racial” marriage case, but it even goes beyond that. The statute in Virginia didn’t ban “racially mixed marriages ” as the article describes, but only some racially mixed marriages. It made it a felony for “any white person [to] intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person [to] intermarry with a white person.” In other words, Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, or any other persons of color could marry with each other, but could not marry someone who was White. The state’s need to defend “racial integrity” as Virginia claimed fell flat because the statute was designed to preserve White racial purity exclusively. Its one of the quintessential White supremacy cases of the era.
Bergin’s cogent analysis of the old “racial purity” arguments of white supremacy from another era should make us wary of similar kinds of arguments today about supposed racial purity in the era of DNA and genetic testing. And, Loving’s passing is a reminder of the difference that once person can make in fighting against white supremacy.