A friend points out a piece in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine. It’s the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue marking the passage of remarkable people. The story to which I was directed is titled, “Mildred.” It’s the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the black woman and white man whose marriage in the late 1950s led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down state laws that prohibited interracial marriage.
Of course, one reason the remembrance of Mildred Loving strikes with particular poignancy is its appearance in the midst of the battle over gay marriage. Sure enough, the story touches on that fact, explaining that late in her life, activists approached Mildred Loving (her husband died decades ago) to see if she would endorse the gay-marriage cause. The story recounts:
“ ‘I just don’t know,” Loving told them. She hadn’t given it much thought. She listened sympathetically, a worn Bible on her end table, as the group’s founder, the furniture entrepreneur Mitchell Gold, told her of his own struggles as a teenager to accept that society would never let him marry someone he loved. She was undecided when the group left a few hours later, but told Ashley Etienne, a young woman who consulted for the group, that they could continue to chat about the subject over the phone.”
Eventually, Loving did make a statement. She wrote, in part: “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, 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. I believe that all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.”
She mentions “religious beliefs,” which also play such a big part in the fight over gay marriage. Why? To get a hint, it’s helpful to take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia. In summarizing the facts, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted the trial court’s sentence against the Lovings for violating Virginia’s laws against race-mixing–a year in jail suspended on condition the Lovings not visit Virginia together for 25 years–and quoted Judge Leon M. Bazile’s opinion in the case:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. 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.”
Mind you, that’s a statement from the bench, not from the pulpit (though based on this, I’m guessing the judge, who served 24 years in his circuit court seat, didn’t make too fine a distinction between one and the other.) Lest one think we’re dealing with a rogue jurist with some fringe, antique beliefs, consider the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ explanation of why it was ruling against the Lovings: “the State’s legitimate purposes were ‘to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,’ and to prevent ‘the corruption of blood,’ ‘a mongrel breed of citizens,’ and ‘the obliteration of racial pride.’ ” The religious language has been replaced by what the plaintiffs’ attorneys called “ludicrous” arguments in support of “odious” laws that had just one object: white supremacy. (Audio of the oral arguments, all two hours and 15 minutes’ worth, is at Oyez.org.)
“Odious” and “ludicrous,” yes. They were also the law in Virginia and 15 other states at the time Loving was argued. The United States was still emerging — not in some ancient time filled with Civil War battle smoke, but within many of our own lifetimes — from a regime in which is was thought proper for the state to subject part of its population to systematic humiliation, to rob citizens of their dignity by erecting daily reminders of their legal inferiority and otherness.
That brings me to Proposition 8 and all the other campaigns to “safeguard traditional marriage.” At bottom, they come back to the same effort to impose a certain religious and cultural viewpoint and to maintain a sense of superiority among one group — we straights, who are free to enjoy the privileges and rights attendant to marriage — over the other and to maintain the distinctions between the privileged and the other. The Prop. 8 proponents teach that God’s law proscribes marriage between members of the same sex; what’s more, if the alleged divine injunction is ignored, the collapse of society looms.
Perhaps the most impressive words in Earl Warren’s opinion in Loving v. Virginia are the final ones: “These convictions must be reversed,” he wrote. “It is so ordered.”
If only prejudice were so easily abolished.