Imagine that you were a woman in Virginia in the 1950s and you were lucky enough to find the guy you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. And imagine he felt the same way, so you got married. And then a couple of weeks later, while you were home asleep, the local sheriff and some deputies pounded on your door and arrested both of you because you happened to be African-American and your husband happened to be white.
That's what happened to Mildred Loving in 1958. She and her then-fiance had gone to Washington, D.C. to get married, since Virginia law didn't permit it. But Virginia had what was called a Racial Integrity Act which prohibited marriages between members of different races and refused to recognize otherwise valid marriages between interracial couples even if they were performed in another state. The Lovings got suspended jail sentences and left Virginia; their plea agreements required them to leave the commonwealth of Virginia and not return for twenty-five years. Later on, the Lovings came to miss their home state and decided to return. Inspired by the hope of the civil rights movement, they decided to fight Virginia's statute. There were a number of legal issues (what you'd call "technicalities") and when their lawyers tried to explain some of the legal theories to the Lovings, Mr. Loving said, "[T]ell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
The Lovings prevailed; in 1967, the Supreme Court struck down the so-called "miscegenation" laws that prohibited interracial marriages. What was at stake wasn't just recognition by the government; it was also issues like inheritance, legitimacy, and death benefits. Laws like the Virginia one made interracial marriages void, meaning it was as if they never took place, and thus prevented children from inheriting by considering them illegitimate, and so on.
Mrs. Loving died this week. She was one of those ordinary Americans who rises to a challenge and perhaps unexpectedly finds that she's changed our country. A year ago, Mrs. Loving issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision urging states to allow gays and lesbians to marry.
In a brutal touch of irony, I read in the paper today that the Pennsylvania Senate may vote this week on an amendment to the state constitution outlawing gay marriage and civil unions. It's hard for me to understand why Mr. Loving's poignant question doesn't apply to gays and lesbians as well: if you love your spouse, isn't unfair for the state to stop you from living together as a married couple?
Rest in peace, Mrs. Loving. I hope your legacy lives on.