Ken Plum: Virginia is for Loving

Richard and Mildred LovingIt is somewhat ironic that Loving Day in Virginia, celebrated annually on June 12, has nothing to do with the famous “Virginia is for Lovers” public relations slogan but has much to do about ending a period in history when Virginia was less than loving. Loving Day in Virginia relates to an interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving, who were married in the District of Columbia and tried to live near where they grew up in Virginia. They were found guilty of violating state law and banished from their home state for twenty-five years.

The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in Virginia prohibited marriage between persons classified as white and people classified as colored. Although Mildred and Richard were residents of Caroline County, they went to the District of Columbia to get married to get around this anti-miscegenation law. They returned to live in their home but were arrested because Virginia law did not recognize the D.C. marriage, and furthermore it was also against the law to go outside the state to be married and return as an interracial couple.

The laws under which the Lovings were convicted were eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. One of their lawyers with whom I was later to serve in the House of Delegates, Bernard “Bernie” Cohen, told the Justices that Richard Loving had sent a message to them. “Tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”

In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court invalidated the Virginia law and all other state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The case (Loving v Virginia) decided in 1967 is considered a landmark civil rights case that helped to dismantle Jim Crow laws and establish a precedent that was cited in 2015 to invalidate laws prohibiting same-sex marriages.

It is important to recognize Loving Day for the courageous action on the part of Mildred and Richard Loving to allow their case to go forward with the help of the ACLU to challenge an unjust law. Some of our greatest gains in civil rights have come through the courts as legislatures have too many times lacked the political will to do what is right when it might not be popular with some people. It can also be chilling to recognize that this step forward took place just over fifty years ago. We need to study our history and carefully review our current political and societal mores to ensure that such discrimination is not continuing today. Overcoming discrimination and racial biases are not topics of the past but continue to today. We need to support those like the Lovings who stepped up to undo an injustice.

Some long for the “good ole days.” My reading of history suggests that better days are ahead of us. A divided and discriminatory society of the past is not to be celebrated. Virginia needs to be a Commonwealth of lovers of justice, equality and peace.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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