Race is the distinctive problem of American history.

On the second of May 2008, Mildred Loving, a 68-year-old black woman, died of pneumonia in Central Point, Virginia.1 In the same town 50 years earlier, Loving had been asleep in bed with her new husband, a white man, when sheriff’s deputies broke into their house and arrested them both. The Lovings had been legally married in adjacent Washington DC, but this did not spare them several nights in jail and a plea-bargained felony conviction for violating Virginia’s ‘Racial Integrity Act’ that included suspended one-year jail sentences and a 25-year banishment from the state. The sentencing judge, Leon Bazile, explained that the Virginia law, enacted in 1662, was in service of God’s purpose when He placed the races on separate continents to prevent their mixing. The Lovings paid court fees and left the state to set up house in Washington. But they grew homesick for family, friends and the easy rolling hills of rural Virginia, and in 1963, with the civil-rights movement stirring new expectations, Mildred Loving wrote a letter about her plight to US attorney general Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy encouraged her to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU lawyers took the Lovings’ case through Virginia courts and up to the US Supreme Court, which, in 1967, reversed their conviction and effectively overturned the United States’ remaining laws against ‘miscegenation’.

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Dana H. Allin is Editor of Survival, and IISS Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October–November 2017

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