The thing about history is it tends to repeat itself on a fairly regular basis.
Take laws regulating marriage, for example. In 1967, the US Supreme Court finally heard a case involving interracial marriage.
A Virginia couple — he was white and she was black and Native American — got married in Washington, D.C. in 1958 because it was illegal to do that in their home state. Five weeks later they were charged with violating the state’s miscegenation law, which not only made it illegal for a white person and black person to get married, but also made it illegal for them to cross the state lines to get married where it was legal.
After today’s Supreme Court ruling and the heated rhetoric about what that will eventually lead to, I decided to look up the 1967 case in the New York Times. I chose the NY Times for no other reason than I have a digital subscription that gives me access to its archives all the way back to the 1850s.
I found a story in the April 11, 1967 edition written by Fred Graham, who covered the arguments the day before.
(The name was familiar so I looked him up. Fred Graham is a native of Nashville who went on to work for CBS and CourtTV after his stint with the Times ended in the 1970s.)
According to the story, attorneys for the state of Virginia claimed the state had as much right regulating interracial marriage as it did to ban polygamy and incest. (Sound familiar?). Then there was this gem:
He (Assistant Attorney General R.D. McIllwaine 3rd ) said that Virginia’s “strong policy” against interracial marriage was based upon strong scientific evidence. As proof he waved a thick volume entitled “Intermarriage – Interfaith, Interracial, Interethnic,” by Dr. Albert I. Gordon.
Mr. McIllwaine cited statements by Dr. Gordon that interracial marriages were often contracted by rebellious individuals to express their social hostility. He said that “the progeny are the martyrs” of such unions, and contended that the state had a legitimate interest in preventing them.
In other words, the state’s primary interest was in the children’s welfare. (That also sounds familiar.)
The American Civil Liberties Union, arguing on behalf of the couple, used a familiar argument, too.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union compared Virginia’s antimiscegenation laws with the laws of Nazi Germany and South Africa and urged the Justices to strike down the system of statutes that dates back to 1691.
The attorney, Philip J. Hirschkop, of Alexandria, Va., said Virginia’s laws denied Negroes the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
“They are slavery laws, pure and simple – the most odious of the segregation laws,” he said.
Virginia then countered with a legislative intent argument.
Assistant Attorney General R.D. McIllwaine 3rd of Virginia leaned heavily on the argument that none of the framers of the 14th amendment intended to outlaw statutes against racial intermarriage.
“If any had suggested this, it would not have passed,” he said.
As usually happens in America, though, right beat might, and the court ruled in the couple’s favor, striking down 15 other state laws that barred people of different races from marrying.
But I found an interesting bit of information in the article as well. According to Virginia law in place in 1967, a white person was defined as one who has “no trace of any blood other than Caucasian.”
Family tradition holds that my mom’s paternal grandmother was a quarter Native American, which would have meant my parents would have broken the law if they had gotten married in Virginia instead of Texas in 1950. And I went to a lot of places that it might have been illegal for me to go that summer we spent in Virginia in 1964.