It was not the most romantic honeymoon story. On the morning of July 11, 1958, five weeks after getting married, Mildred Loving and her husband Richard were in bed at home in Central Point, Virginia when the county sheriff and two deputies burst into their bedroom. Flashlight in hand, they surveyed the shocking scene: a black woman in bed with a white man. “Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?” the sheriff demanded.

Mrs. Loving flatly answered, “I’m his wife.”

Although the Lovings pointed to their Washington D.C. marriage certificate, the sheriff told them that in Virginia their biracial marriage was illegal.

As recently as the 1960s, it was indeed illegal for interracial couples to marry in many U.S. states. This fact may seem astonishing to young Americans enjoying a more tolerant society than that of their parents’. But the truth remains: a 2010 U.S. Census brief, Households and Families: 2010, showed the number of interracial or interethnic opposite-sex married U.S. couples grew by 28 percent since 2000.

June 12th is of particular significance to those celebrating the rights of interracial couples and families. Known as “Loving Day,” a title with a romantic, fanciful ring, the day draws its name from Mildred and Richard Loving, and their story of struggle in what was once a less-tolerant America.

This June 2010 Time Magazine article investigates the major events precipitating in the founding of “Loving Day.” On June 12, 1967, in the case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the country’s anti-miscegenation laws, allowing interracial couples across the country to marry. As Time’s Christopher Shay writes:

Thirteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, the court took the last legal teeth out of the Jim Crow era, ridding the U.S. of its last major piece of state-sanctioned segregation. June 12 has since become a grass-roots holiday in the U.S., especially for multiracial couples and families. Known as Loving Day, the celebration commemorates the 1967 case and fights prejudice against mixed-race couples, and is a reason to throw an awesome, inclusive party.

Shay further highlights how this now-nationwide grassroots celebration was originally the vision of one person: Ken Tanabe. Tanabe had never heard of the Lovings, but as a person of mixed-race heritage, he wanted that to change. In 2004, Tanabe “created a website to educate people about the history of mixed-race marriages and encouraged people to host their own Loving Day gatherings… Now Loving Day is the biggest multiracial celebration in the U.S.”

The Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, viewable in full here, dramatically redefined the rights of interracial couples. As the decision states, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

Award-winning writer Heidi W. Durrow lends a personal angle to the ramifications of the court’s decision:

My parents married in a small brick Lutheran church in Denmark because it was illegal for them to marry in South Carolina in 1965.  You see my mother is a white Danish immigrant and my father was African-American—whites and blacks were not allowed to marry in South Carolina or 15 other states at the time.  It’s funny but I don’t remember a time I didn’t know this fact—I must have been as young as 6 when my parents first shared the story with me.  I can’t say that I understood what it meant until I was well into my teens.  But it seems absolutely unimaginable now that the multiracial population is the fastest growing demographic in the country and interracial marriages are at an all-time high.

In addition to the Loving v. Virginia groundbreaking legislative decision, the recent election of Barack Obama as President of the United States opened up new discussions about racial and cultural connectedness.  He gave the general public an opportunity to imagine the “look” of a family differently by introducing voters to the images and stories of being raised by his white grandparents and growing up in a blended family in Indonesia.

Now, the Supreme Court’s decision on two marriage equality cases raises similar questions to those addressed in theLoving v. Virginia decision. This website hosted by the Oyez Project at the Chicago-Kent College of Law provides a “deep dive” into the two same-sex marriage cases currently being argued by the Supreme Court. Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor have the capabilities to create the same lasting legacy as the Loving Day decision.

In fact, gay rights advocates often use the precedent of the Loving case in their arguments for same-sex marriage equality. In this Michigan Law Review article, “Live and Let Love: Self-Determination in Matters of Intimacy and Identity,” Professor Kim Forde-Mazrui reviews Professor Randall Kennedy’s book Interracial Intimacies, arguing that racial identification and intimacy should be individually-directed rather than guided by legal or social influences. Forde-Mazrui writes:

The human ideals of love, trust, and compassion that Kennedy advocates and celebrates arguably should extend to those members of our community who happen to fall in love with people of the same sex. Accordingly, in addition to promoting racial tolerance, the lessons of Interracial Intimacies counsel greater tolerance for intrasexual intimacies.

Before Mildred Loving passed away in 2008, she issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of the announcement of the Supreme Court ruling urging that gay men and lesbians be allowed to marry.

For Mr. and Mrs. Loving, their struggle was simply personal—they just wanted to get married. Yet, in doing so, they dramatically expanded the rights of others like them. As Mildred Loving’s obituary cites:

“We have thought about other people,” Mr. Loving said in an interview with Life magazine in 1966, “but we are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”

While the Lovings paved the way for other couples like them, the recent backlash over an interracial family featured in a Cheerios ad (as discussed in this May 2013 Washington Post article) proves the United States may not yet be as tolerant as the Lovings had hoped it would be.

Image credit: Jer Thorp via flickr

About The Author

Heidi Durrow
NYT Best-Selling Author

Heidi Durrow is the author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books), winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize founded by Barbara Kingsolver. She is a founder of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an annual festival celebration stories of the Mixed experience. She has been featured as an expert on multiracial and multicultural issues and identity by the NBC Nightly News, the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, Ebony Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio.