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Loving v. Virginia: Case Brief & Decision

Instructor: Dawn Young

Dawn has a Juris Doctorate and experience teaching Government and Political Science classes.

Interracial marriage used to be illegal in some states. This lesson discusses the landmark case of 'Loving v. Virginia' and the Supreme Court decision that struck down a Virginia law banning interracial marriage.

Race Matters

Imagine meeting that perfect person and falling in love, but because of the person's skin color, you have to sneak off to another state to get married. Then, upon returning to your home state, you are arrested and put in jail. Well, that is exactly what happened to Richard Loving and his wife Mildred.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were both born and raised in Caroline County, Virginia. Richard was white and Mildred was of African American and Native American descent. They met when they were young and began a relationship; when Mildred became pregnant at 18, they decided to get married. The year was 1958 and, at that time, it was illegal in Virginia for people of different races to marry each other. Knowing they could not get married in Virginia, Richard and Mildred went to Washington, D.C., where interracial marriages were legal, and got married. Shortly after they returned to Virginia, warrants were issued for their arrest, and they were taken to jail. Both Richard and Mildred pled guilty to violating state law. The judge ordered them to leave Virginia immediately, told them they could not return to Virginia at the same time to visit for the next 25 years, and gave them each a 1-year suspended jail sentence. Richard and Mildred then moved to Washington, D.C.

Virginia Law

In 1691, Virginia began regulating interracial marriage. Initially, the laws did not ban interracial marriage; they only penalized the white partner with fines or banishment from Virginia. However, by 1880, interracial marriages were considered void, and both partners could receive 2 to 5 years of jail time.

In 1924, Virginia passed the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. This law reaffirmed that interracial marriages were illegal in Virginia and then went on to legally define a white person as someone who only has pure Caucasian blood. An exception was made for those white persons claiming to be descended from Pocahontas, but they had to have no African American ancestry and be less than 1/16th Native American.

These types of laws, limiting marriage between people of different races, were known as miscegenation laws. Miscegenation is defined as marriage, cohabitation or sexual relations between a white person and a person of another race.

The Court Case

In 1963, missing their families in Virginia, Mildred sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General asking for help with their situation. The Attorney General suggested contacting the American Civil Liberties Union office in Washington, D.C. Attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop were assigned to the case.

After fighting for Richard and Mildred in the state's courts for years, Cohen and Hirschkop made a final appeal to the United States Supreme Court and, in 1967, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

On April 10, 1967, the Assistant Attorney General for Virginia, R.D. McIlwaine III, and Cohen and Hirschkop appeared in front of the Supreme Court. On behalf of the Lovings, Cohen and Hirschkop argued that Virginia's law against interracial marriage violated Richard and Mildred's 14th Amendment right to equal protection because it violated one of their civil rights, the right to marry. They argued that prohibiting people from marrying because of the color of their skin is discriminatory and therefore violates the equal protection clause because the races are not being treated equally. Cohen and Hirschkop pointed out that the Virginia law only prohibits white people from marrying non-whites but does not prohibit other non-white races from marrying each other. They also argued that because Richard and Mildred were unable to marry who they wanted because of their race, their civil rights were violated without due process of law.

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