Loving Day Celebrates Legalization of Interracial Marriage As Gay Marriage Ruling Looms

48 years ago it was illegal for mixed-race couples to get married in 16 states. The Loving Day organization makes sure no one forgets.

As the United States awaits the Supreme Court's forthcoming decision on the "marriage question" — whether the Constitution can require states to allow same-sex marriages — another once-banned form of marriage marks it 48th anniversary of being legal throughout the country.

The appropriately named Loving Day — celebrated on June 12 — commemorates the 1967 Supreme Court case in which the justices struck down laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Loving v. Virginia was named after plaintiffs Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving — who were Black and White, respectively — and who married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., only to be accused of breaking their home state of Virginia's "unlawful cohabitation" law that barred interracial couples from living together when they returned home.

People mingle at a past Loving Day event. Photo by Willie Davis
People mingle at a past Loving Day event. Photo by Willie Davis

The two were jailed for the offense, according to the ACLU.

The law criminalized rather than acknowledged "that two people have the right to be together and that their relationship was just as valuable as anyone else's," says Ken Tanabe, founder of the Loving Day Project.

And the court agreed. An ensuing legal battle resulted in the high court dismantling the law in Virginia and 15 other states that had them on their books at the time — guaranteeing that race would not be a legal factor preventing consenting adults from getting married in the U.S.

From Legal Action to Interaction

Fast forward a few decades and the court's overturning of the laws is now marked as an unofficial holiday, visible each June throughout the country and beyond thanks to the Loving Day Project. Originally a graduate school thesis project by Tanabe to educate people in New York City about the Loving case, it has grown in its 12th year to more than 25 affiliated, volunteer-powered events around the globe, including the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles, a trip to Six Flags in the Atlanta area, and meetups abroad in Paris, Japan, Amsterdam, Taipei and the UK.

Loving Day founder Ken Tanabe speaks during Loving Day's Flagship Celebration. Photo by Willie Davis
Loving Day founder Ken Tanabe speaks during Loving Day's Flagship Celebration. Photo by Willie Davis

"Loving Day [is] so important because it doesn't just work on educating people about what's happened and the history involved, but it's also about getting people to think and feel differently about themselves and others around them in the world," Tanabe says. This "hearts and minds" approach piggybacks the existing law to change attitudes, he adds, noting that in 1958, when the Lovings married, only 4 percent of the U.S. approved of interracial marriages and, in 1967, that number had grown to 20 percent.

That tally stands at 87 percent today.

The figure is personified at New York's flagship celebration, which in the past has brought together as many as 1,500 people who identify as biracial or multiracial, are in interracial relationships, are transracially adopted, or are the friends and family of someone who may fit any of those demographics within the "multiethnic community." While a DJ spins tunes, families of various hues dance, dine and mingle with other attendees, and experience one of the few public safe spaces where they don't face curious stares or intrusive inquiries such as the cringe-worthy "What are you?"

Members of the Loving Day organization speak to attendees. Photo by Mauro Clerici
Members of the Loving Day organization speak to attendees. Photo by Mauro Clerici

"The atmosphere at Loving Day wasn't necessarily part of the original plan," Tanabe says. [I] definitely liked the idea of building community … but the feeling you get when you're in that space is so positive, so welcoming … I think of it as, 'You don't know what you're missing until you find it.'"

Acceptance in Numbers

For many people, Loving Day is the first time they've been completely surrounded by people who share their experience as an interracial couple, or a multiracial or multiethnic person — which occasionally can be a lot for them to absorb.

"Someone came up to me [at last year's flagship celebration] and said, 'Hey, my best friends just got engaged, could you give them a shoutout?'" Tanabe says. "We asked the DJ to turn the music down, and we brought them onto the stage and asked them what their names were, and said, 'Hey, everybody, just so you know, these two just got engaged.'"

A DJ spins during a Loving Day celebration. Photo by Willie Davis
A DJ spins during a Loving Day celebration. Photo by Willie Davis

While Tanabe expected a supportive response from those in attendance, no one was prepared for what followed.

"People clapped and cheered, and the couple up there was very happy, but the clapping and cheering went on for so long that after a while they didn't really know what to do anymore — they were totally overwhelmed, there might have been tears," he says.

Dancers take to the floor during a Loving Day celebration. Photo by Michael Kirby Smith
Dancers take to the floor during a Loving Day celebration. Photo by Michael Kirby Smith

"They were just so happy and it made me realize this is not the typical reaction. Even today if you're an interracial couple ... people don't clap for you. You hope they don't give you dirty looks and that they treat you normally. [For] a lot of people, it's the first time they've gotten that response and I really believe in creating that atmosphere." What's more, Tanabe says that a number of mixed-race couple have also chosen to make Loving Day their wedding day.

The Work Ahead

Tanabe and the many volunteers involved in the Loving Day events work hard to make sure the annual gatherings offer that level of comfort and welcome others to the "open house" of the multiethnic community. And there's even more to celebrate this year, with the announcement of the forthcoming film, called Loving, set for a 2016 release and telling the tale of the Lovings, and the new book Loving Day, penned by author Mat Johnson, which satirically tackles the topic of race. (Tanabe also holds out hope that President Obama will officially declare Loving Day a federal holiday before he leaves office.)

But one thing the group welcomes is the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, whose collective battle for same-sex marriage rights parallels and has borrowed tactics from the Loving v. Virginia case, specifically the ideas of the freedom to marry and equal protection for those marriages.

Attendance at New York's Loving Day event reaches well above 1,000. Photo by Willie Davis
Attendance at New York's Loving Day event reaches well above 1,000. Photo by Willie Davis

Same-sex marriage entered the Supreme Court with two advantages over interracial marriage, according to the Washington Post, specifically that gay marriage is legal in more states than interracial marriage was ahead of Loving, and the practice also enjoys a higher public approval rating. And the battle for gay marriage has been going full-steam ahead since the early 2000s, with many predicting a victory for its combatants.

"I used to guess how long it would take for same-sex marriage to become legal nationwide," Tanabe says of comparing the momentum of the two matrimonies. "The barometer I looked at for the peak of laws against interracial marriage and the time from [those] until Loving … it took almost 70 years for it to get reversed."

[Cover Image Taken by Willie Davis]

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