Sharing the Loving Case with Students

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I recently had the opportunity to view the film “Loving” (2016), a dramatization based on Loving v. Virginia (1967) in which the Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage. For those who have yet to see the film it is a fictionalized account reportedly inspired by “The Loving Story” (2012), an HBO documentary. In addition to the obvious significance of the case in the history of civil rights, viewing the feature film reinforced for me the many areas of US history that can be enhanced by class discussion of the Loving case. 


Watching the entire film in class is not always optimal timewise but there are some excellent online resources to introduce the case to the class in its place. Encyclopedia Virginia offers a summary of the key people and events, which can be assigned in conjunction maps and figures documenting the history of interracial marriage in the United States. Both the ACLU and have accessible visual aids to help students understand the geographical component of the debate. While general histories of the case often portray its importance within the broader movement for civil rights, in-class or online discussions may branch out to include such diverse topics as the civil history of marriage in the colonies and the States, miscegenation laws, the 14th Amendment, and the post-Civil War rise of Jim Crow. Students may also wish to discuss connections between Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which guaranteed marriage equality.


The Loving case offers an opportunity for students to talk historically about inter-racial relationships and the challenges faced by black and white families who sought to navigate friendships and marriages amidst brutally restrictive racial customs enforced by state laws. It also sheds light on the hypocrisy of a culture that long accepted sexual assault against black women (free and enslaved) by white men but believed that consenting adults should not have the legal right to create interracial unions. These conversations are no doubt difficult in the classroom but meaningful for students to fully understand the foundations and lasting-legacies of slavery and racism in our national history.


I find the Loving case to be particularly relevant to students because, at heart, it is about the right of two people to create a family of their own choosing. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the human beings behind Supreme Court rulings, but it is these historical actors that many of our students will engage with most willingly. Encourage them to read interviews with Mildred and Richard Loving, and to watch some of the short video clips of news coverage of the case. In learning about this case many students will be able to see connections to their own family histories and to reflect on how their lives may have been different without the end of miscegenation laws that Loving v. Virginia brought about. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.