In American legal history, few cases resonate as profoundly, or are as aptly named, as Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967). This landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1967 marked the end of state laws banning interracial marriage and championed the indomitable spirit of Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a woman of African and Native American descent. Their love story unfolded in defiance of the segregationist norms of the time.
Richard and Mildred were childhood sweethearts who grew up in the same Caroline County, Virginia community. After marrying in Washington, D.C., the Lovings returned to their home state of Virginia only to face the harsh reality of anti-miscegenation laws.
The Lovings were charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to Virginia, and Section 20-59, which classified miscegenation as a felony, punishable by a prison sentence of between one and five years.
On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended on condition that the couple leave Virginia and not return together for at least 25 years. After their conviction, the couple moved to Washington, D.C.
Undeterred, the Lovings became unlikely champions for civil rights, challenging the discriminatory state legislation and paving the way for a more inclusive understanding of love and marriage in America.
Their legal battle ultimately culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in their favor: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. 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.”
Beyond its immediate impact on the lives of the Lovings and countless others, Loving v. Virginia laid the groundwork for subsequent legal battles challenging discriminatory laws based on sexual orientation and gender. Loving was cited as precedent by the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, which overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage.
As we reflect on the importance of Loving, we acknowledge that it not only dismantled racial barriers to marriage but also catalyzed a broader movement towards a more inclusive and equitable society—one where love, in all its forms, prevails over prejudice.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, the Law Library will celebrate the legacy of Loving v. Virginia. Stop by the Reference Desk for some goodies and cards for your Valentine!