Loving Case Breaks the Barriers

The Supreme Court swept away laws barring interracial marriage, and Old Hollywood gave its stamp of approval shortly afterward.

When the Lovings faced a Virginia court, the judge ruled against them, writing “Almighty God... did not intend for the races to mix.” The decision helped shift the case to the Federal courts, and eventually, the Supreme Court.

The pace at which attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop attempted to get Loving v. Virginia before the Supreme Court through the mid-1960s was hellish for the defendants, whose rights and liberty were at stake. But the legal proceedings were slow and complex. Narrow, technical judicial questions stood in the way of moving Richard and Mildred Loving’s case out of Virginia — where no sympathetic hearing could be had — into the federal system.

The pace as remarked in the movie “Loving”: Cohen received these words from Mildred, stuck in the District of Columbia in June 1964: “Hope that you remember us. You took our case. We haven’t heard anything from you for so long we had given up hope.”

Perhaps sensing that Jim Crow was doomed, Virginia and the Lovings worked out an informal deal in November 1964, allowing the Loving family to relocate to King and Queen County under the radar, with assurances of minimal harassment and quick bail in case of rearrest.

Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The film’s director Stanley Kramer later wrote “I wanted the prospective black bridegroom to be a person so suitable that if anyone objected to him, it could only be due to racial prejudice.”

Meanwhile, the entertainment industry didn’t exactly fast-track interracial marriage onto its own agenda, either. But significantly, onscreen treatments of the issue were becoming less titillating. 1964’s arthouse release “One Potato, Two Potato,” like “Night of the Quarter Moon,” turned interracial marriage into fodder for a legal drama. “One Potato, Two Potato” focused on a lawsuit to determine child custody when a divorced white mother falls for an African-American. Filmmakers sensed that the topic was no longer simple sensationalism; it was also a matter for the courts.

MGM finally delivered a worthwhile treatment of a black-white romance with 1965’s “A Patch of Blue.” Set in a Deep South city, this story shows a friendship between a blind white girl (Elizabeth Hartman), and a kindly black stranger she encounters in the park (Sidney Poitier) slowly blossoming into love. “Patch” left open the strong possibility that at long last, a Hollywood film would bring in a black-white marriage to a happy harbor. That was too much for some. Memphis’ Plaza Theatre was picketed by six Ku Klux Klansmen in full regalia. The “sheeted sextet,” said Variety on May 11, 1966, announced they were there to persuade citizens not to see the “ungodly” movie.

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In 1968, this Variety special ad section promoted “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The film was highly acclaimed in its time, both for its high-minded message and for its entertainment value.

Such sentiments were not restricted to low-lifes, as the original judge in the Lovings’ court case, Leon Bazile, proved as he denied a defense motion to vacate. His decision included the following memorable passage:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. ... He did not intend for the races to mix.”

After Virginia upheld Bazile, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually agreed to schedule oral argument for April 10, 1967. There was no shortage of eloquence from the Lovings’ legal team before the court, but perhaps the most effective rhetorical point was scored when Cohen decided to pass along to the justices his client’s bottom-line assessment of the case:

“[N]o one can articulate it better than Richard Loving, when he said to me: ‘Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.’”


"Yesterday’s unanimous Supreme Court decision declaring as unconstitutional state laws barring inter-racial marriages was ironically timely: in ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,’ Spencer Tracy’s in a scene with Roy Glenn berating these same states."

Daily Variety, June 13, 1967

Yesterday’s unanimous Supreme Court decision declaring as unconstitutional state laws barring inter-racial marriages was ironically timely: in ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,’ Spencer Tracy’s in a scene with Roy Glenn berating these same states.

The moment between Richard and Cohen is dramatized in the motion picture “Loving,” setting up the film’s swell of emotion when Chief Justice Warren reads the court’s unanimous decision that race-based restrictions on American marriage were null and void.

Days before the Loving decision was handed down, shooting wrapped on a picture that would lend Old Hollywood’s seal of approval to this new landscape: Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It was a a glossy tale in which liberal San Francisco parents (legendary acting couple Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) are tested when their daughter announces she’ll marry a black physician (Poitier). Kramer, who’d directed “The Defiant Ones” with Poitier, knew he was tackling a deep industry taboo against depicting a sexual relationship between a black and a white.

“While it was not written into any document, it didn’t have to be,” Kramer wrote in his memoir. “Everyone in the industry knew about it and honored it, even those that may have considered it wrong.” Kramer had to make an end run around his studio, Columbia, and had to put his fee on hold because the frail Tracy was uninsurable. Tracy died days after shooting wrapped (and before the Loving decision), but his last work proved a triumph. On Dec. 5, 1967, Variety’s critic A.D. Murphy called “superior in almost every imaginable way.” And to Columbia’s surprise, it was a box office hit.

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Some critics faulted the lovers’ sole kiss, seen obliquely in a cabbie’s rear view mirror; though that sidelong glance may be a metaphor for where Hollywood stood in 1967. But regardless, no one can tell how many people’s attitudes were shifted by the endorsement of interracial marriage by Tracy, who’d embodied American decency in so many Hollywood classics, in a movie so popular and entertaining.

Yet half a century later, issues that seemed settled in the 1960s are suddenly unsettled again, as a candidate favored by unregenerate racists prepares to assume the presidency. Could the progress the Lovings helped advance forward be in danger of a rollback?

Tell the Judge I Love My Wife