Looking in the Cultural Mirror

How understanding race and culture helps us answer the question: "Who am I?"

The Loving Story—A Valentine from HBO

The couple whose marriage overturned anti-miscegenation laws.

Richard and Mildred Loving
On Valentine's Day, HBO presented the documentary The Loving Story. The film tells about an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (appropriately named for the holiday), who got married in Washington, DC in 1958 and returned to live in their rural Virginia community. One night, while they were at home sleeping peacefully, the police broke in, and arrested, and jailed them for violating the state's anti-miscegenation law. The Loving Story follows these events, and shows how they eventually led to the Supreme Court's 1967 unanimous decision in Loving v. Virginia declaring laws against intermarriage unconstitutional.

The film is roughly divided into two parts. It begins with background on the couple, their families and neighbors, and life in the South a half century ago--setting the scene with family photos and clips from home movies. Next comes the Lovings' conviction, banishment from Virginia to Washington, DC, and their difficulty in adapting to urban life that made them want to return home, and ultimately led Mildred to write to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. He said he couldn't help them, but referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which took on the case. The second part of the film traces the legal battles that began in Virginia and eventually led to the Lovings' Supreme Court victory. This part of the story is mainly organized around accounts by the two young (and now old) ACLU attorneys.

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At times, as I watched the film, I found my eyes tearing up. It's hard for me to know how much this was my own personal reaction, because of associations the film evoked, or how much it is likely to be shared by viewers in general. My African American wife and I were married in 1970. We were both professors, who had gotten married over a weekend and were back teaching on Monday. When Spring Break came along, we took a car trip to Virginia as an ersatz honeymoon. I remember my hesitation at the time about traveling to the South, which my wife pooh-poohed. She was right, of course, and we had a fine time, with no unpleasantness. But as I watched the film I couldn't help but be reminded that--had we gotten married only three years earlier––we could have been arrested.

As I think about the film, which I would definitely recommend, I can't help but mention a number of issues that it might have dealt with but omitted.

It might have discussed the increase in all kinds of mixed marriages in the decades after the Loving decision--currently in excess of 4,000,000.

It might have mentioned Mildred Loving's 2007 statement in support of gay marriage. Here is an excerpt:

 

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.

 

The film might have given more attention to the way in which anti-miscegenation laws focused on defining who is white as an exclusionary category. A number of years ago, a graduate student in my cross-cultural psychology course wrote a term paper on apartheid laws and the concept of race in South Africa. Even though South African racial categories were different from American ones, the same principle held. There was relatively little interest in defining races other than white, but a great emphasis on making clear all the ways in which an individual could fail to meet criteria for belonging to that prestigious group.

Finally, the New York Times's 2008 article on Mildred Loving's death indicated that "Mildred's mother was part Rappahannock Indian, and her father was part Cherokee. She preferred to think of herself as Indian rather than black." Mildred would not have been considered black in Brazil, or Haiti, or Cape Verde, or many other countries. The film might have dealt with America's "one drop rule," and the way in which others classified her as black trumped the way she thought of herself. Furthermore, although both of Mildred's parents were the direct or indirect product of intermarriage, such "miscegenation" seems not to have been a problem. This illustrates once again that the laws––despite their pretense of furthering "racial purity" for all groups––were really aimed at doing so only for whites.

Of course, if these issues had been dealt with they would have made for a different film. As it is, The Loving Story focuses on the facts of the case and the legal process leading to the Supreme Court decision. And that is enough to make it an informative and moving documentary.

 

Image Source:
The Loving Story

 

Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books at http://amazon.com/Jefferson-M.-Fish/e/B001H6NFUI

The Myth of Race is available on Amazon http://amzn.to/10ykaRU and Barnes & Noble http://bit.ly/XPbB6E

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Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. John's University, has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.

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