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Loving V. Virginia : the right to marry

The case Loving V. Virginia is probably one of the most famous in American history for it marked a watershed moment in the dismantling of the Jim Crow race laws, it is a case about law giving in to the spirit of love undaunted by discrimination and bigotry.

What America and the rest of the world learnt from the Loving ruling is that love truly conquers all. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruling on the Loving case made interracial marriages legal and almost 5 decades later played a vital role in Obergefell V. Hodges, the case that ended another form of discrimination by recognising same-sex marriage. Loving V. Virginia has therefore been celebrated and will probably continue to be celebrated for a long time to come as the love story that shaped American society for the better.

After an anonymous tip off, in the wee hours of the morning in July 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested by police in their own bedroom. Their crime? Richard was White and Mildred wasn't. The two were informed that they had violated Section 20-58 of the Virginia state code which effectually disallowed interracial marriage in another state and returning to Virginia. Richard Loving, who was white and his wife Mildred Dolores Jeter, who was of mixed African American and Native American descent had travelled to Washington D.C. that year to be married because doing so was against the law in their home state of Virginia, as well as in 15 other rural states.

The violation of which meant a punishment of confinement in the state penitentiary for anywhere in-between one to five years, the same punishment for violating Section 20-58 which disallowed union between "white" and "coloured" persons. Both sections were based in Virginia's 1924 "Act to Preserve Racial Integrity". The judge who presided over their case gave the Lovings to one year in jail which they managed to escape on the terms that that they would leave Virginia immediately and not return together for a period of 25 years.

Although they established residence in Washington, D.C. where they brought up their daughter Peggy, the Lovings were determined to return home where they believed they rightfully belonged. In November 1963, 5 years after they were arrested, the Lovings appealed to a Virginia State court to overturn the previous ruling on the grounds that Sections 20-58 and 20-59 which they had been charged for violating were inconsistent with the Fourteenth Amendment- that no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The state court unfortunately upheld the earlier ruling but undaunted, the Lovings brought it to Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals, which rendered the sentence null because the condition for their suspension was “unreasonable” but astonishingly upheld the constitutionality of Sections 20-58 and 20-59. The logic being that although racial classifications was what defined these acts as criminal, neither were in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment as the punishment was equal for both white and coloured persons.

Never giving up hope, the Lovings then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling overturned the Loving decision and not just the laws against interracial marriage in Virginia but also those in the other 15 states. Speaking on behalf of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren voiced the opinion of the court, that the freedom to marry was indubitably “one of the basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival,” and that to deny this freedom “on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes,” would be “to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.” Loving v. Virginia is considered by many to be one of the most important legal decisions of the civil rights era. With the Supreme Court's decision on the unconstitutionality of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law , racial segregation was dealt a blow it would never recover from.

And so 54 years after Richard Loving told his lawyer,"tell the court I love my wife", more and more people have been allowed to love. In 2015, 17% of all U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, a significant increase since the Loving's case in 1967, when a mere 3% of newlyweds were intermarried, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. The Loving's legacy does't end there, in 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the Loving case in his opinion on the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalised gay marriage across the United States.

Few cases have been named more aptly than Loving V. Virginia.


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