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Trailblazing Relationships That Helped To Change The Taboo Against Interracial Marriage

In 1967, the US Supreme Court finally ruled that bans on interracial relationships were unconstitutional via a decision made in the landmark Loving v. Virgina case. Up until then, the law had been left up to individual states, and at the height of Jim Crow and Civil Rights, it was a fraught subject. Interracial marriage in the US was illegal in nearly every state at some point — only nine states never passed laws banning it — and couples could be thrown in jail simply for living together.

Whites feared that "race mixing" would weaken the white race, and they used the government to terrorize interracial couples. Just like Supreme Court cases about abortion and cases about guns, it would take action from the highest court in the land to challenge the bigotry against interracial relationships. In

The decision in Loving v. Virginia was about more than laws about interracial marriage — it was about thousands of couples fighting for their very existence. Loving v. Virginia changed the law — but it didn't happen in a vacuum. Thousands of couples before and after Mildred and Richard Loving fought for love and sometimes put their lives at risk to do so. Sadly, the fight isn't over: in 2000, 41% of Alabama voters were in favor of maintaining the state's illegal ban on interracial marriages, and a 2011 poll found that a plurality of Mississippi Republicans wanted to bring back the ban on interracial marriage.

  • Photo: Kimmel & Forster / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One Couple Was Sent To Prison Just For Living Together – And The Supreme Court Said It Was Legal

    In the wake of the Civil War, Missouri representative Andrew King proposed a constitutional amendment in 1871 that would ban marriage between whites and people of color. It failed at the time. But 10 years later, a Black man named Tony Pace and a white woman named Mary J. Cox were arrested in Alabama simply because they were living together. The law there was so broadly written that the couple didn't even have to be married to violate the law, and they were both sentenced to two years in prison for the crime.

    The couple appealed the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, but in Pace v. Alabama, the court ruled that the law was not discriminatory because both received the same prison sentence regardless of race. The ruling would hold for more than 80 years. 

  • Photo: Macfadden Publications / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lucille Ball And Desi Arnaz Caused Network Turmoil Because Of Their Interracial Marriage

    I Love Lucy is one of the most iconic TV shows in history — and it almost didn't get on the air because of bigotry. Lucy's biographer, Kathleen Brady, says the network did not want Lucy's husband Desi Ricardo on the show at all. Both "CBS and its sponsor, Philip Morris cigarettes, were adamantly opposed to this. They said that the American public would not accept Desi as the husband of a red-blooded American girl." But Lucille Ball put down her foot, and the rest is history: Lucy and Desi became household names.

    CBS was so worried that they insisted on twin beds in the Ricardo bedroom, and even outlawed the word "pregnancy," (as too vulgar) in the episode where Lucy finds out she's expecting. But the show's premier in 1951 as the first television program to feature an interracial couple was a smash hit — perhaps because racists decided the marriage was acceptable because of Arnaz's European heritage.

  • Sammy Davis, Jr. And His Swedish Wife Challenged Social Conventions

    When entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. married Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, their marriage was illegal in 31 states. In fact, John F. Kennedy even asked the couple not to appear at his inauguration because he feared a backlash from white Southerners.

    The pair did face a backlash: Britt was dropped by 20th Century Fox because of the interracial relationship, and their daughter, Tracey, says Sammy Davis, Jr. worried about the future for biracial children. "What will the world be like for Tracey? What will our legacy be for our children? Is it going to be any better."

    The couple tried to make the world a better place: in the 1960s, they were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and Sammy participated in the 1963 March on Washington. He also refused to perform at racially segregated nightclubs––a move which helped integrate nightclubs in Las Vegas and Miami Beach.

  • Photo: Freedom To Marry / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Mildred And Richard Loving Were Banned From Virginia Until They Fought All The Way To The Supreme Court

    Their name became famous because of Loving v. Virginia, but Mildred and Richard Loving started out as a couple in love. Mildred Jeter met Richard Loving in the 1950s, when both lived in Virginia. Interracial marriage was illegal in their state, so they crossed the border to Washington, D.C. when they got married in June of 1958. But a few weeks later, Virginia charged the couple with breaking the law and sentenced them to one year in jail — or a 25-year ban from the state.

    The terrified couple moved to DC, but they were arrested again five years later for visiting Mildred's parents. They wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy for help, and a few years later their case was in front of the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the court overturned all bans on interracial marriage, declaring, "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival."