Lambda Lore

An Unconventional Domestic Arrangement

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Ben WilliamsFunny how history can feel so familiar. Replace the words “same-sex” with the word “miscegenation” in front of the word marriage, and you have the same far right religious radicals’ battle to protect the sacred institution of matrimony, only from the 1960s instead of the 2000s.


Until a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, interracial marriage was illegal in half of the United States. The same religious nut jobs then as today appealed to the Bible as a justification to prohibit connubial rights between categories of people they did not like. They were wrong then, they are wrong now, and sadly it probably will take another Supreme Court decision to untie the religious tentacles of those who would strangle the secular rights of other Americans.
 
The ban on miscegenation — that is, interracial marriage (or more broadly, interbreeding between members of two different races) — was a major hurdle Americans had to get over on the quest to achieve social justice. In the colonial period anti-miscegenation laws primarily meant those laws forbidding marriage between blacks and whites. There seemed to be no such prohibition between whites and American Indians, as in the case with John Rolf, who married Pocahontas in 1614. However that would change during the 19th Century when anti-miscegenation laws were expanded to include the intermarriage of whites with American Indians and Asians.
 
But let’s go back a few centuries. The first state to see anti-miscegenation laws as inherently wrong was the Quaker state of Pennsylvania. Even before it became a state, this progressive colony abolished its anti-miscegenation laws in 1790. It would take over fifty years for the next state to abolish its law against interracial marriage. That state was Massachusetts, which dropped its anti-miscegenation law in 1843. This state would also have the honor of being the first to allow its residents to marriage regardless of sexual orientation, 161 years later.

One of the most famous 19th Century common-law marriages between a white man and a mixed-race woman was between Kentucky Congressman Richard Johnson and his father’s former slave, Julia Chinn. Although state law was prohibited Johnson from marrying Chinn, this “unconventional domestic arrangement” did not keep him from becoming vice president of the United States — although it probably did keep him from becoming president. Such statutory laws prohibited many Southern men from marrying their loved ones. An ancestor of mine, Elijah Willis, left South Carolina for Ohio to free and marry his black common-law wife, Amy, and free the children of that union who would have remained property in South Carolina where such marriages were illegal.
 
In 1871, Missouri congressman Andrew King (a Democrat) proposed a constitutional amendment to make interracial marriage illegal nation-wide. He feared that the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed equal civil rights to the emancipated slaves, would render laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. While King’s proposal did not find support in the Radical Republican Congress, his fears were well-grounded, however; 70 years later California would abolish its anti-miscegenation laws citing the 14th amendment.
 
Roughly 40 years later in 1913, another constitutional ban on interracial marriage was proposed by Georgia Democrat Seaborn Roddenberry. This constitutional amendment stated in part: “Intermarriage between negros or persons of color and Caucasians … within the United States … is forever prohibited.” This national hysterical fear of interracial marriage was a reaction to black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson’s marriages to two white women. The movie The Great White Hope is based on Johnson’s life.
 
The proposed amendment ultimately failed, but Wyoming enacted an anti-miscegenation law in the same year. Even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted a measure that prevented couples who could not marry in their home state from marrying in Massachusetts. Some seventy years later Mitt Romney, then Governor of Massachusetts and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would dust off this antiquated law to prohibit gays from other states coming to Massachusetts to marry.
 
In 1928 Coleman Blease, a Senator from South Carolina, proposed a constitutional amendment that would require congress to punish interracial couples attempting to get married and the people officiating at such marriages. This amendment also went nowhere, however, and anti-miscegenation laws were left up to individual states.
 
So, where was Utah in the national debate over interracial marriage? Well, territorial governor Brigham Young had harsh opinions on miscegenation. In a speech recorded in the LDS Church’s Journal of Discourses, Young had this to say on the subject: “Shall I tell you the Law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the Penalty, under the Law of God is Death on the Spot. This will ALWAYS BE SO.” (Vol. 10 p. 110)
 
Utah has mellowed out since its pioneer days. Still, Mormon Apostle Spencer Kimball said t his in 1959: “We are unanimous, all of the Brethren, in feeling and recommending that Indians marry Indians, and Mexicans marry Mexicans; the Chinese marry Chinese and the Japanese marry Japanese; that the Caucasians marry the Caucasians, and the Arabs marry Arabs.” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.303)
 
Utah’s disdain for interracial marriage was coded in state law until 1963. Sadly, Utah would not have recognized the marriage of President Barack Obama’s parents when Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii. Indeed, our state’s change of heart primarily came about because of legal challenges in neighboring states.
 
Now, what of California? In 1948, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that California’s anti-miscegenation statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and was therefore unconstitutional. This was the first time since Reconstruction that a state court had declared a miscegenation law unconstitutional.
 
But the nation-wide overturning of anti-interracial marriage laws would not come about until a decade later. In 1958, an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, married in Washington D.C. to evade Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, called the “Racial Integrity Act.” After returning to Virginia, police arrested the Lovings in their bedroom for living together as an interracial couple. If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. Twenty-five years later Georgia police arrested Michael Hardwick, a gay man, in his bedroom for having sex with a man.

The Lovings’ arrest eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that all bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The miscegenation laws of the remaining 16 states thus became invalidated. This ruling left Apartheid South Africa the last nation with anti-miscegenation laws until they too were abolished in 1985.
 
Michael Hardwick was not as fortunate as the Lovings, though. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that the nation’s privacy laws did not protect sodomy. Hardwick would thus have to wait another generation for justice until 2003, when the Supreme Court finally overturned all sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas.
 
So what is the connection, if any, between gay marriage and interracial marriage? Gay columnist Andrew Sullivan has pointed out that no state with a history of miscegenation laws has so far allowed same-sex couples to wed, enjoy civil union status, domestic partner status, or any other form of state-sanctioned legal protection.

That’s something to think about.

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