Interracial Marriage Laws History and Timeline

Richard and Mildred Loving in Washington, D.C.

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Centuries before the same-sex marriage movement, the U.S. government, its constituent states, and their colonial predecessors tackled the controversial issue of "miscegenation," or mixture of races. It's widely known that the Deep South banned interracial marriages until 1967, but less widely known is that many other states did the same. California, for example, prohibited these marriages until 1948. In addition, politicians made three brazen attempts to ban interracial marriages nationally by amending the U.S. Constitution.

1664

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Maryland passes the first British colonial law banning marriage between white people and Black people—a law that, among other things, orders the enslavement of white women who have married Black men:

"[F]orasmuch as diverse freeborn English women forgetful of their free condition and to the disgrace of our Nation do intermarry with Negro slaves by which also diverse suits may arise touching the [children] of such women and a great damage doth befall the Masters of such Negroes for prevention whereof for deterring such freeborn women from such shameful matches,
"Be it further enacted by the authority advice and consent aforesaid that whatsoever freeborn woman shall intermarry with any slave from and after the last day of this present Assembly shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband, and that the [children] of such freeborn women so married shall be slaves as their fathers were. And be it further enacted that all the [children] of English or other freeborn women that have already married Negroes shall serve the masters of their parents til they be thirty years of age and no longer."

This legislation leaves unaddressed two important questions: It draws no distinction between enslaved and free Black people and omits marriages between white men who marry Black women. But the colonial governments did not leave these questions unanswered for long.

1691

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The Commonwealth of Virginia bans all interracial marriages, threatening to exile white men and women who marry Black people or Native American people. In the 17th century, exile usually functioned as a death sentence:

"Be it enacted...that...whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free, shall intermarry with a negro, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever...
"And be it further enacted...that if any English woman being free shall have a bastard child by any negro or mulatto, she pay the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, within one month after such bastard child shall be born, to the Church wardens of the parish...and in default of such payment she shall be taken into the possession of the said Church wardens and disposed of for five years, and the said fine of fifteen pounds, or whatever the woman shall be disposed of for, shall be paid, one third part to their majesties...and one other third part to the use of the parish...and the other third part to the informer, and that such bastard child be bound out as a servant by the said Church wardens until he or she shall attain the age of thirty yeares, and in case such English woman that shall have such bastard child be a servant, she shall be sold by the said church wardens (after her time is expired that she ought by law serve her master), for five years, and the money she shall be sold for divided as if before appointed, and the child to serve as aforesaid."

Leaders in Maryland's colonial government liked this idea so much that they implemented a similar policy a year later. And, in 1705, Virginia expanded the policy to impose massive fines on any minister who performs a marriage between a Native American or Black person and a white person—with half the amount (10,000 pounds) to be paid to the informant.

1780

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In 1725, Pennsylvania passed a law banning interracial marriage. Fifty-five years later, however, the commonwealth repealed it as part of a series of reforms to gradually abolish slavery there. The state intended to grant free Black people equal legal status.

1843

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Massachusetts becomes the second state to repeal its anti-miscegenation law, further cementing the distinction between northern and southern states on enslavement and civil rights. The original 1705 ban, the third such law following those of Maryland and Virginia, prohibited both marriage and intimate relations between African Americans or American Indians and whites.

1871

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Rep. Andrew King, D-Mo., proposes a U.S. constitutional amendment banning all interracial marriage in every state throughout the country. It will be the first of three such attempts.

1883

The US Supreme Court

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In Pace v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules that state-level bans on interracial marriage do not violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling will hold for more than 80 years.

The plaintiffs, Tony Pace, and Mary Cox, were arrested under Alabama's Section 4189, which read:

"[I]f any white person and any negro, or the descendant of any negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation was a white person, intermarry or live in adultery or fornication with each other, each of them must, on conviction, be imprisoned in the penitentiary or sentenced to hard labor for the county for not less than two nor more than seven years."

They challenged the conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Johnson Field wrote for the court:

"The counsel is undoubtedly correct in his view of the purpose of the clause of the amendment in question, that it was to prevent hostile and discriminating state legislation against any person or class of persons. Equality of protection under the laws implies not only accessibility by each one, whatever his race, on the same terms with others to the courts of the country for the security of his person and property, but that in the administration of criminal justice he shall not be subjected, for the same offense, to any greater or different punishment...
"The defect in the argument of counsel consists in his assumption that any discrimination is made by the laws of Alabama in the punishment provided for the offense for which the plaintiff in error was indicted when committed by a person of the African race and when committed by a white person."

Field stressed that Section 4189 applies the same punishment to both offenders, regardless of race. This meant, he argued, that the law was not discriminatory and that even the punishment for violating it was the same for each offender, whether the person was white or Black.

More than a century later, opponents of same-sex marriage will resurrect the same argument in claiming that heterosexual-only marriage laws don't discriminate on the basis of sex since they technically punish men and women on equal terms.

1912

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Rep. Seaborn Roddenbery, D-Ga., makes a second attempt to revise the Constitution to ban interracial marriage in all 50 states. Roddenbery's proposed amendment stated:

"That intermarriage between negroes or persons of color and Caucasians or any other character of persons within the United States or any territory under their jurisdiction, is forever prohibited; and the term 'negro or person of color,' as here employed, shall be held to mean any and all persons of African descent or having any trace of African or negro blood."

Later theories of physical anthropology will suggest that every human being has some African ancestry, which could have rendered this amendment unenforceable had it passed. In any case, it didn't pass.

1922

Richard Barthelmass and Yaeko Mizutani

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While most anti-miscegenation laws primarily targeted interracial marriages between whites and African Americans or whites and American Indians, the climate of anti-Asian xenophobia that defined the early decades of the 20th century meant that Asian Americans were also targeted. In this case, the Cable Act retroactively stripped the citizenship of any U.S. citizen who married "an alien ineligible for citizenship," which—under the racial quota system of the time—primarily meant Asian Americans.

The impact of this law was not merely theoretical. Following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in United States v. Thind that Asian Americans are not white and therefore cannot legally become citizens, the U.S. government revoked the citizenship of American-born Mary Keatinge Das, wife of the Pakistani American activist Taraknath Das, and Emily Chinn, mother of four and wife of a Chinese American immigrant. Traces of anti-Asian immigration law remained until the passage of the ​Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

1928

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Sen. Coleman Blease, D-S.C., a Ku Klux Klan supporter who had previously served as South Carolina's governor, makes a third and final attempt to revise the U.S. Constitution to ban interracial marriage in every state. Like its predecessors, it fails.

1964

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In McLaughlin v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules that laws banning interracial relationships violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

McLaughlin struck down Florida Statute 798.05, which read:

"Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred dollars."

While the ruling did not directly address laws banning interracial marriage, it laid down the groundwork for a ruling that definitively did.

1967

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The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturns Pace v. Alabama (1883), ruling in Loving v. Virginia that state bans on interracial marriage violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the court:

"There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy...
"The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men...To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law."

Warren pointed out that the 14th Amendment provides the freedom to marry, regardless of the race of those involved. He said the state cannot infringe upon this right, and after this landmark high court decision, interracial marriage became legal throughout the United States.

2000

Alabama State Capitol In Montgomery
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Following a Nov. 7 ballot referendum, Alabama becomes the last state to officially legalize interracial marriage. By November 2000, interracial marriage had been legal in every state for more than three decades, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1967 ruling. But the Alabama State Constitution still contained an unenforceable ban in Section 102:

"The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro."

The Alabama State Legislature stubbornly clung to the old language as a symbolic statement of the state's views on interracial marriage. As recently as 1998, House leaders successfully killed attempts to remove Section 102.
When voters finally had the opportunity to remove the language, the outcome was surprisingly close: although 59% of voters supported removing the language, 41% favored keeping it. Interracial marriage remains controversial in the Deep South, where a 2011 poll found that a plurality of Mississippi Republicans still supports anti-miscegenation laws.