The Right to Love: Loving v. Virginia and the American Civil Liberties Union

The film Loving, based on the Loving v. Virginia case, is now in expanded release in U.S. theaters.

When Mildred and Richard Loving were married in June 1958, twenty-four states still had anti-miscegenation laws. For this reason, Mildred, a black woman who was also of Rappahannock and Cherokee Indian descent, and Richard, a white man, were married in Washington, D.C. instead of their native Virginia, where both of their families had resided for generations. After they married, the Lovings settled in Central Point, Virginia. They were unaware that they would soon find themselves involved in one of the most significant legal battles of the civil rights movement.

On July 11, 1958, after receiving an anonymous tip, local authorities issued warrants charging the Lovings with attempting to evade Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages. The Lovings were indicted by a grand jury in Caroline County, Virginia and pled guilty in January 1959. They were convicted under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which made it illegal for interracial couples to marry out of state with the intention of returning, and sentenced under Section 20-59, which declared interracial marriage a felony offense and punishable by between one to five years in prison. Initially, both Mildred and Richard were sentenced to one year in prison, but the sentences were suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return together for twenty-five years.

Cover page of the Supreme Court brief filed by the ACLU. American Civil Liberties Union Records: Subgroup 2, Project Files Series (MC001.02.02), Box 672, Folder 8

Cover page of the Supreme Court brief filed by the ACLU in the Loving case. American Civil Liberties Union Records: Subgroup 2, Project Files Series (MC001.02.02), Box 672, Folder 8

The Lovings moved to Washington, D.C. and began the process of trying to reverse the county court’s judgment and sentences so that they could live as spouses in Virginia. The Lovings’ case was taken on by the American Civil Liberties Union and eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the brief that ACLU lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop filed on behalf of the Lovings, they asserted that Virginia’s statutes prohibiting interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The brief also argued that the roots of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, the legislation upon which Virginia’s interracial marriage ban was based, could be traced back to slavery, and that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws were “symbolic of the Negro’s relegation to second-class citizenship.” The attorneys urged the court that “the time has come to strike down these laws; they are legalized racial prejudice, unsupported by reason or morals, and should not exist in a good society.”

On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the Lovings. The decision impacted not only the laws in Virginia, but also the laws in all other states that prohibited interracial marriage at the time of the ruling. In his opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that to deny the “fundamental freedom” of marriage “on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive to the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the States’ citizens of liberty without due process of law.” In honor of the landmark decision, June 12 is recognized annually as Loving Day.

ACLU press release about the outcome of the Loving case. American Civil Liberties Union Records: Subgroup 2, Legal Case Files Series (MC001.02.04), Box 1508

ACLU press release about the outcome of the Loving case. American Civil Liberties Union Records: Subgroup 2, Legal Case Files Series (MC001.02.04), Box 1508

1 thought on “The Right to Love: Loving v. Virginia and the American Civil Liberties Union

  1. Pingback: Who, exactly, are the ACLU? | Greater Lafayette ACLU

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