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A Loving Couple's Legacy

By Clarence Page

There is a poignant significance to the passing of Mildred Loving at a time when a biracial senator leads the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Their stories are connected by time, skin color and a Supreme Court decision.

Mildred and Richard Loving had been married only five weeks in 1958 when the county sheriff burst into their bedroom with two deputies.

They shined flashlights in their eyes and a menacing voice demanded, "Who is this woman you're sleeping with?"

When Richard pointed to their marriage certificate on a wall, the sheriff responded, "That's no good here."

The District of Columbia marriage license was "no good" because Richard was white and Mildred was black in a small Virginia town in 1958, when it was one of (16) states that banned interracial marriage.

The raid, sparked by an anonymous tip, resulted in a night in jail for Richard, several more for Mildred, a felony conviction and their banishment from returning to the state together or at the same time for 25 years.

They returned to their home state sooner than that, thanks to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in their case, Loving v. Virginia, that overturned state miscegenation laws in 1967.

Mildred Loving died on May 2 at her home in Central Point, Va. She was 68. Her husband died in a car accident in 1975.

Four decades after the court decision that bears their poignantly appropriate name, the world feels like a very different place, thanks in part to that court decision.

Interracial marriages have multiplied as American attitudes toward race have relaxed, although for some groups dramatically more than for others.

Since 1970 the number of married people in the United States who have a spouse of another race has climbed from less than 2 per 100 to almost 8 per 100, according to Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld, a leading specialist in interracial marriage trends.

Among Rosenfeld's other findings: The Lovings did not set a trend, gender-wise. White women are still about twice as likely to be married to a black man as white men to a black woman.

About 3 white men per thousand and about 7 white women per 1,000 were married to a black person in 2005.

At the same time, almost 8 percent of black men and about 3.5 percent of black women were married to a white person.

A much higher percentage of Asian men (25.8 percent) and women (33.7 percent) were married to whites.

And as times have changed, so have the questions.

Hardly a week goes by, for example, without my receiving at least one e-mail that asks, "Why does Barack Obama say he is black?"

"There is the media hype that Obama would be the first black president. Not true," writes Ron of Jacksonville, Fla. "He would be the first racially mixed president."

Maybe Ron is a young man who hasn't heard about the "one-drop rule," a peculiarly American custom that says one drop of black blood makes you black. The census since 2000 allows Americans for the first time to check off as many racial boxes as they think apply. That legacy of Loving may do more than anything else to undo race as we have known it.

But changing the labels or even ignoring them will not eradicate race-related problems of income and equality.

The growth of interracial marriages in the military offers an example what can occur across racial lines in the closest thing we have to a color-blind society. The Army sees only one color, I was told after I was drafted in 1969: Army green. In accord with that dictum, census figures show intermarriage more than twice as likely in the military for all racial groups except for Asian men.

That's a reflection of how long the military has been integrated into one unified, egalitarian and meritocratic culture. Significantly, the military has a level playing field that is ordered from the top down and obeyed by a military culture that is by nature intolerant of nonconformity.

But in establishing a right to marry whom you please regardless of race, the Loving decision also has touched off a heated debate over whether the right to marry should be extended to couples of the same sex.

Frankly, I don't see how anyone else's marriage would make my marriage any weaker, as opponents of gay marriage suggest. Nevertheless, I expect that debate to continue for a while. Public resistance to interracial marriage was a lot weaker in the late 1960s than resistance to gay marriages is today.

American attitudes toward race have relaxed considerably. Our attitudes toward sex are still pretty uptight

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc.

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