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The death of a symbol

The police stormed into their Virginia bedroom one night in 1958, shone flashlights into their eyes, and asked the white man: Who's this woman you are sleeping with? "I'm his wife," Mildred Loving replied and the rest, quite literally, became a vital part of American legal history.

The Lovings, Mildred and Richard, were an interracial couple who had married five weeks before the cops came calling that night. At the time, in Virginia and many other places, it was a crime for a white to marry a black or for any other "miscegenation." Thanks to the Lovings, and a fight that lasted nearly a decade, that all changed in 1967 when the Supreme Court unanimously struck down such laws nationwide.

This is part of what Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote on behalf of the Court: "There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause."

Loving v. Virginia wasn't just one of the last civil rights decisions of its era. It presaged some of the most important personal rights decisions of the 1970s, including Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down anti-contraception bans, and Roe v. Wade, which struck down anti-abortion laws. Loving was a hinge, you might say, between the anti-segregation jurisprudence highlighted by the two anti-segregation Brown v. Board of Education rulings in the 1950s and the "individual liberty" jurisprudence that saw its heyday in the late 1970s before the Court tacked right once again.

Mildred Loving died last week. Here is part of the Washington Post's obituary: "A modest homemaker, Loving never thought she had done anything extraordinary. 'It wasn't my doing,' Loving told the Associated Press in a rare interview a year ago. 'It was God's work.' Today, according to the Census Bureau, there are 4.3 million interracial couples in the nation." Loving gave that rare interview, by the way, to offer her support for same-sex marriage. And you can bet that when the Supreme Court tackles that issue, the Justices will confront yet again the important legacy of the Loving ruling.

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