Wednesday, May 07, 2008

State's rights versus Loving.

Mildred Jeter helped change America. Perhaps you aren’t familiar with her, at least by her maiden name. When she married took her husband’s surname and became Mildred Loving. Yesterday, she died, at age 68.

Mildred had married the man she loved, Richard. One night, as they slept, armed agents of the state burst into their home. They surrounded the couple and began the interrogation. Richard was asked who it was that he was sharing his bed with. Mildred answered instead: “I’m his wife.”

The police, no doubt found that amusing, and told Mildred, “That’s no good here.”

Virginia, like other Southern states, had enshrined “God’s law” into the legal code. And the South believed that God’s law said that marriage between the races was unnatural, sinful and ought to be a crime. So it was.

The Lovings were convicted and lectured by the judge for violating the will of God.

The Lovings eventually got up the courage to challenge the law and the matter went before the Supreme Court. They won. Conservatives of the day whined about “activist judges” and pleaded that the States had the right to regulate marriage even if done in a blatantly discriminatory manner. The Court held that the individuals right to marry superseded any claims that politicians have over preventing such marriages.

In recent years Mrs. Loving had ceased giving interviews. But last year, on the 40th anniversary of her Supreme Court victory, she did issue a statement:

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.

We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the “crime” of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed. The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared: “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.” He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.

We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn’t have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “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,” a “basic civil right.”

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, 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 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.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is 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.

I particularly wish to draw attention to Mildred’s statement: “Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.”

Mildred is stating the libertarian case. No government, at any level, has legitimate authority to violate the rights of individuals. This is clearly a lesson that conservatives still have not learned, including conservatives who pretend to be libertarian. Loving got it. People like Root and Barr just don’t get it.

Labels: ,