Remembering a “Loving Spirit” This Valentine’s Day

Gay Rights
February 14, 2010

On this Valentine’s Day I am reminded of no greater challenge to marriage equality than same-sex marriage. However, the precedent for same-sex marriage was set by an African American woman named Mildred Loving.

Mildred Loving gained notoriety when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in her favor that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

Loving’s crime back then was this country’s racial and gender obsession -- interracial marriage.

Married to a white man, Mildred Loving and her husband were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October 1958 for violating the state’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924.” When they were found guilty, the trial judge said the decision was based on God's will.

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents," the judge said. "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 trial judge then suspended their sentences on the condition the Lovings leave Virginia and not return to the state together for 25 years. The Lovings initially agreed and left, but soon after returned and decided to fight their case.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Chief Justice Earl Warren delivering the opinion of the Court in June 1967. In that opinion, Warren set the stage for defining marriage as a civil right.

“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," Warren said. "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.”

One of the ways this society has been able to control and regulate human sexuality and race relations is through the institution of marriage. Before the Loving case, there was the case of marriage equality concerning my ancestors residing in the American South. African-American slaves were forbidden to marry until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Prior to that, my ancestors had to "jump over the broom" -- an African-American tradition -- to legalize their nuptials before a crowd of witnesses.

So I ask: Why the opposition or indifference to same-sex marriage in the African-American community? As African Americans, we know that in saving and protecting black families we have had to focus on marriage's spiritual content and not its physical composition.

As a matter-of-fact, multiple family structures presented by same-sex marriages should not be what the African-American community opposes, because multiple family structures are what have saved and what are still saving African-American families. For example, a grandmother or an aunt and uncle -- straight or gay -- raising us in their loving homes have anchored our families through the centuries. And these multiple family structures, which we have had to devise as a model of resistance and liberation, have always, by example, shown the rest of society what really constitutes family.

We were told in Massachusetts that if the state legalized such an ungodly act as same-sex marriage, not only would it bring the death of the institution of marriage, but it would also bring about the demise of civilization.

Many also said the righteous hand of God would be in that defining moment to stop same-sex marriage, with ugly protests, with town clerks engaging in civil disobedience by refusing to issue licenses, and with just those last minute unavoidable and inexplicable legal snafus.

But none of that happened. And the sky didn’t fall either!

On June 12, 2007, Freedom to Marry joined with several of the nation's leading civil rights organizations to hold a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision, for affirming the freedom to marry as a “basic civil right” of every American.

Lending her support to the commemoration, Mrs. Mildred Loving wrote a letter of support with her thoughts on love and marriage.

“When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, it wasn't to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married. Not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry," wrote Loving. "I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. I am proud that Richard's and my name are on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.”

In quelling the tension between black civil right activists of the 1960s who stated that marriage equality for LGBTQ Americans is not a civil right, one of the organizations that spearheaded the Loving case, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., marked the 40th anniversary of Loving by saying that even though the experience of African Americans is different than that faced by gays and lesbians, the basic principles of equality were still at play.

“It is undeniable that the experience of African Americans differs in many important ways from that of gay men and lesbians; among other things, the legacy of slavery and segregation is profound. But differences in historical experiences should not preclude the application of constitutional provisions to gay men and lesbians who are denied the fight to marry the person of their choice,” the NAACP wrote.

For us LGBTQ Americans, who would have thought that the audacious actions of a demure African-American young woman from Caroline County, Virginia are the reason our paths crossed? And the campaign for same-sex marriage will succeed for us because the campaign to strike down anti-miscegenation laws did for Mildred Loving.

Since the beheading of St. Valentine in Rome in the year 270 A.D., marriage has been controlled by church heads and heads of states and not by the hearts of lovers. When Emperor Claudius II issued an edict abolishing marriage because married men hated to leave their families for battle, Valentine, known then as the “friend to lovers,” secretly joined them in holy matrimony. While awaiting his execution, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and in his farewell message to his lover, he penned “From your Valentine!”

May the “Loving -spirit” of Mildred and the justice acts of St. Valentine be with us on this day.  [Link]