'Loving' and the legacy of the ACLU
Now & Then
Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU discusses the historical and legal significance of Loving and how — even 50 years later — we still can't put discrimination behind us.
There’s a strange feeling that overtakes you as the end credits of Loving start rolling up the screen. In classic Hollywood style, the triumph of love over adversity fills your heart with hope and happiness, but at the same time, the victory feels short-lived. It’s in that moment that the period piece feels like it’s as much a celebration as it is a warning.
Soon to be one of the most talked-about films of award season, Loving recounts the story of Mildred and Richard Loving – two ordinary people – and their battle against racism and unconstitutional conduct. However, a closer look at the film reveals an unsung hero, the American Civil Liberties Union, and begs audiences to consider the current state of freedom in America.
In 1958, the Lovings were legally married in Washington, D.C., but shortly after their union, the couple moved to Virginia, where their marriage was in violation of the state’s anti-miscegenation law. The newlyweds were arrested and subsequently banished from the state until, after years of exile, Mildred Loving entreated U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to legalize her marriage in her home state. Kennedy then referred Loving’s case to the ACLU, which supplied the legal resources to represent the couple before the Supreme Court.
“From the outset, the ACLU has been concerned where any practice by the state violates a constitutional provision,” explains Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Once you say that marriage between people of different races is illegal, that is akin to what the Supreme Court struck down 10 years earlier in the [Brown v. Board of Education] case. [Implementing] these kinds of racial restrictions, particularly given the history of discrimination, violates the Constitution.”
To the Lovings’ delight, the Supreme Court followed the precedent set by Brown v. Board of Education and in 1967, ruled that Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act was unconstitutional – thus legalizing interracial marriage in the United States and creating fodder for a perfect Hollywood ending.
But where the plot of the film ends, the work of the ACLU was just beginning: The victory in the Supreme Court illustrated the widespread social progress that could be achieved in the courtroom and, according to Parker, has served as a blueprint for the ACLU’s modern pursuits – most recently marriage equality.
“[Loving v. Virginia] is a good example of the way an individual case has an impact that goes far beyond just the issue or the people who are involved in the case,” Parker says. “When Time and Life did the photographic essay on their lives, there were people who could look at it and say, ‘Maybe they are not that different from me,’ and ‘Maybe their marriage does not represent a threat to society in the way I thought before.’
I think what we’ve learned – and not just in the election, but really over the past two or three years – is how much, racially and ethnically, the country remains divided.
- Dennis Parker, ACLU
“I think a lot of the progress that was made in marriage equality was when people stopped talking about it as an abstract legal issue and started talking about it as two people who were committed to each other, who were in love and [wanted] that recognized. And so Loving became a sort-of model for the broader implications of these policies.”
Case law implications aside, Parker also believes that Loving (the film) has a valuable place in 2016 and speaks to the work that is still left to be done in the United States. In a recent op-ed, Parker called the film “a chilling reminder” that despite the Lovings’ victory, there are some civil liberties that are still in jeopardy.
“I think what we’ve learned – and not just in the election, but really over the past two or three years – is how much, racially and ethnically, the country remains divided,” Parker explains. “We have all repeatedly seen videos of what I think are unjustified shootings, but what shocks me as much as the facts of the shooting is how the reaction to those are so deeply divided. I think that’s a sign that there is a need for us to find some way to deal with some of these differences in perception.”
As head of the Racial Justice Program, Parker’s day-to-day work puts him on the front lines of America's racial divisions, managing cases that confront archaic discriminatory practices like racial profiling and school segregation, as well as new forms of discrimination that are created by the internet, such as algorithmic ad targeting. “We continue to have the forms of discrimination that have been in this country since its founding, and then we have things that new technology [has] created – new potential avenues for discrimination,” he says.
But it isn’t just Parker’s work in racial justice that makes him believe Loving has a larger message about American liberties. In contemplating the growing racial and ethnic divisions in the country, he sees discrimination spreading into religious expression as well.
“Policies that target religious minorities are not new to this country, but they should scare us,” he says. “When we talk about Muslim registries, or forbidding people from entering the country, or trying to end the citizenship of particular people, those have precedents in our history, and [those] precedents, I think, are the worst aspects of our history.”
He cites Korematsu v. United States, a case that challenged the constitutionality of interning Japanese Americans during WWII, as a poster child for baseless discrimination: “These were people, frequently, who had children who were fighting in the war for the United States, and you look back at that and you think, ‘That’s a shocking assumption to make – that because of someone’s ethnicity, they are a threat to the country. But we’re hearing echoes of that now.’”
The stark reality remains: While Loving may be a triumph of love and fortitude and represent a pivotal blow to racism and discrimination in America, the climactic Supreme Court decision was by no means the knockout punch. Luckily, the film’s unsung hero continues the fight for equal treatment by the law.
“We think of Loving as being so far in our history, [but] I was born 10 or so years before, and I think when I first heard about it, I was amazed it was that late that these laws were struck down,” Parker says. “That’s a sign of how important it is to have an organization – which is what the ACLU prides itself on – [that] says, ’We need someone who is watching out for the people who are most vulnerable and have the least protection, and whose legal rights are being violated.’”