On Tuesday, October 24, the New-York Historical Society hosted its first Frederick Douglass Council event. The program — a look at the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia — welcomed Dorothy E. Roberts as the guest speaker and featured Brent Staples as a moderator.
Dorothy E. Roberts is an award-winning professor who has written multiple articles on the topic of race and law. She has continuously demonstrated immense knowledge of the systemic racism that exists within society. Staples and Roberts were able to keep the audience engaged for the entirety of the hour long event. Brent Staples writes for the New York Times on their editorial board. He wrote an article in relation to the case entitled, “What if the Court in the Loving Case Had Declared Race a False Idea?” The talk started off with a brief history and introduction to the U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia—a 1967 civil rights case that legalized interracial marriage. Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter are the couple who lived in Caroline County, Virginia, and their case ended up reaching the Supreme Court.
They were married in a state where interracial marriage was legal, but when they moved back to Virginia, their marriage violated the Racial Integrity Act, which defined what it meant to be a white person and made interracial marriage illegal.
Slight murmurs were heard in response as Brent Staples introduced the topic to the audience. “The last vestige of Jim Crow was the right to interracial marriage,” Staples mentioned while setting the scene for the time period that the Loving couple lived in. Roberts mentioned that the Racial Integrity Act was “a measure to retain white supremacy.” The audience, without missing a beat, scoffed when white supremacy was mentioned.
Amongst the topics discussed was the idea that race isn’t scientific—it is a social construct with roots dating back to the 1600s. The question raised during that time was what was the status of children born to negro women by white men? In response, the children were given the status of their mother so they could also be enslaved.
The speakers explained that in 1967, there were hundreds of years of race-mixing that society wanted to undo. Staples mentioned that his grandmother told him as a child, “No family that has lived in the South knows with certainty that it is white.” Chuckles rippled throughout the room in response. “There is currently a resurgence of biological race,” Roberts added, “[and] it’s completely made up.”
Throughout the event, Staples and Roberts provided sources for audience members to further research the Loving case. Amongst those sources were suggestions to listen to the transcripts of the court hearing and to research Earl Warren, the Supreme Court justice who had the majority opinion for the case.
The candid questions presented by Staples were met with equally candid responses from Roberts. Staples asked Roberts her opinion about both the good and bad outcomes of the Loving case.
Roberts first responded by explaining that the negative side of the Loving decision was that the Supreme Court tried to reverse the reasoning behind the case; the court interpreted the ruling by saying that it is unconstitutional to make decisions based on race and that the government can’t use race—even to further racial justice. This argument was being used, according to Roberts, to do things like desegregate schools and take away minority voting rights. The government taking a step back from race-related issues left these decisions up to state governments. As a result, Jim Crow laws were able to be rebooted in some states, while in other states, racial integration was increasing. These different approaches to racial issues weren’t being regulated by the federal government, which allowed for discrimination and acceptance to flourish simultaneously throughout the country.
In her opinion, the positive side of the ruling is that it made it unconstitutional for the state to interfere with marriage. It made it possible for people to challenge unjust marriage laws.
A result of the outcome is that there are four to five times more interracial marriages now than there were in the time of the Loving case. But looking towards the future, Roberts stated that even though there has been an increase in interracial couples, they are still rare in comparison to the millions of married couples that exist in the U.S. today. Roberts stated in a clear voice: “There is still more to be done to see great change.”
— Cassandra Wilkins, New-York Historical Society Intern, St. John’s University
TOP PHOTO CREDIT
Rally at state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School. Protesters carry US flags and signs reading “Race Mixing is Communism” and “Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ.” 20 August 1959. Library of Congress, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection.
ADDITIONAL WORKS REFERENCED
“Loving Decision: 40 Years of Legal Interracial Unions.” NPR.ORG, NPR, 11 June 2007.
In June 2017, ViceNews spoke with interracial couples 50 years after the Loving v. Virginia decision.