The Color of Water

The Color of Water Loving v. Virginia (1967)

In the wake of the Civil War, during the difficult Reconstruction period of American history, the country faced significant tensions along racial lines. The South, in particular, instituted anti-miscegenation laws which harshly prohibited interracial unions in an attempt to continue to assert white supremacy over blacks, despite the official abolishment of slavery. In 1887, Ohio became the first state to enact such laws, and Oregon instituted similar anti-miscegenation laws as late as 1951. The violation of these laws oftentimes carried serious legal ramifications.

In 1958, a black woman named Mildred Jeter and a white man named Richard Loving, both residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia, traveled to Washington, DC, to obtain their marriage license. The couple, upon returning to Virginia, faced arrest in violation of the state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Lovings pled guilty, and were sentenced to a one-year jail sentence, or a suspension of the term for twenty-five years if they voluntarily left Virginia. The Lovings brought suit against the state. When the U.S. Supreme Court, under the direction of Chief Justice Earl Warren, heard the case, the decision was unanimous: Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment; hence, the statutory scheme was unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Warren quoted the trial judge Leon Bazile, who wrote: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." The Court overturned this decision, along with its line of reasoning, and concluded that marriage was a basic civil right under the Fourteenth Amendment: "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. 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." The freedom to choose one's marriage partner, according to the opinion, cannot be restricted by racial classifications. The decision ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage.

To place the story of Ruth McBride Jordan into its historical legal context, Ruth realized she was pregnant with Peter's child in Suffolk, Virginia in the year 1936. They could not have married, unless they chose to run away together to a state without an anti-miscegenation law, something Peter was not willing to do.