Mildred Loving Dies at 68

Mildred Loving died this past Friday of pneumonia. An obituary in the Washington Post tells the story of how Loving, an African-American woman, defied Virginia law by marrying her white husband in 1958, and wound up with her name on the 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving vs. Virginia that ended miscegenation laws in the United States.

Bernard S. Cohen, one of the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers who argued the Loving case before the Supreme Court, was with Mildred Loving when she died. Cohen, who is Jewish, called the miscegenation laws “the last on-the-books manifestation of slavery in America.” Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the case in June, Cohen wrote with Freedom to Marry Executive Director Evan Wilson, making an explicit connection between the Loving case and the current legal struggles over same-sex marriage. They wrote:

Today we rightly celebrate Loving v. Virginia as a milestone in racial equality, an important vindication of marriage as a cherished civil right, and a testament to the importance of fighting for equality, rather than sitting by silently, indifferently, or complacently in the face of cruel exclusion.

In 1964, the same year that Bernard Cohen took the Lovings’ case, Look magazine published a cover story called “The Vanishing American Jew,” which discussed the demographic decline of American Jewry due to intermarriage and assimilation. (My managing editor points out that the magazine is long defunct, and we’re still here.)

Prior to 1970, the Jewish intermarriage rate was only 13%. During the ‘70s, it was 28%; 1980-84, it was 38%; 85-90 and 91-95, it was 43%; and 96-2001, it was 47%. The striking down of the miscegenation laws was part of a broader social trend whereby mixed-ethnic and mixed-religious relationships became more acceptable. Populations whose status as despised minorities formerly made them taboo as marriage partners, including Jews, have become better integrated into public life.

The social situation of minorities in the United States has changed, and the meaning of marriage itself continues to change. It’s astonishing, and essential, to remember how recently a person could be arrested in her own bedroom for getting married, and how much courage ordinary individuals have shown in continuing to assert the right to live ordinary lives with the people they love.

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