Before 'Loving'

The following essay by Ella-Marie West was one of the two winners of the 2017 McLeod Prize. The prize recognizes original research papers written by first-year students in the College of Arts & Sciences that explore some aspect of race, gender and/or identity.

In better understanding the context in which Mildred and Richard Loving went to court we may better understand the world civil rights leaders were coming from, yet on a much more personal and intimate level.


Interracial marriage does not appear in textbooks until ​Loving v Virginia​. This case, along with the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, was one of the pivotal events building up to the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. In better understanding the context in which Mildred and Richard Loving went to court we may better understand the world civil rights leaders were coming from, yet on a much more personal and intimate level. In the 1950s, the vast majority of whites condemned interracial marriage and went to great lengths to make it undesirable, unwise, difficult and illegal. Blacks on the other hand had more complex and varying views on it. Yet across the racial divide, two trends existed in 1950s interracial marriage politics: first, men and women were treated differently when it came to interracial marriage; secondly, there was stronger top-down suppression, contributing to the counterculture and resistance of earlier generations that erupted in the 60s.

Why whites were against interracial marriage

Whites in the 1950s were almost universally against interracial marriage. A 1958 Gallup poll found that 1% of southern whites and 5% of whites outside the south approved of interracial marriage.1 White families “appeared most often to refuse to have ‘anything to do with children who entered into interracial marriages.”2 This widespread opinion cut across class, educational and regional lines. In the 50s, whites were just as horrified about interracial marriage as they were in 18503. Yet ​why​ they denounced it varied greatly. Most whites were concerned with the degradation of racial purity and family honor as a result of the “mingling of blood”4. This idea of “blood” emanates from the enslavement of people based on race where “one drop” of black blood made you colored. This was further codified in miscegenation laws and late-19th century theories of eugenics5. Membership to a race based on your blood or lineage became salient for immigrants who were faced with a “bid for whiteness.6” As the white race started to became inclusive to Catholics, Irish and other previously marginalized groups, a family’s “bid” was based on looks, presentation and distancing themselves as much as possible from blacks. Because whiteness was defined as not being black, associating with blacks could change your racial definition, especially in the segregated world of the 50s. This caused a decrease in interracial marriage between blacks and immigrants because of the security and status whiteness afforded them7. Whiteness was such an advantage that a person could sue for libel if they were wrongfully “accused of being black”8. Defining whiteness in contrast to blackness is a reoccurring theme that we will revisit. A 1964 study on interracial marriage found that “the belief in the greater sexuality of both Negro women and Negro men is a psychological factor which may have influenced some whites in their choice of a marriage partner.”9 Casting blacks as “hypersexual” made intermarriage immoral to whites. A few whites reasoned that God created the races so that they would not mix but most saw it as corrupting the white race and detrimental to family honor10

How whites expressed their disapproval

The ways in which whites expressed their disapproval ranged from deep displeasure or disappointment to severe physical punishment. A white father in Virginia found a ​Life​ article on interracial marriage so distasteful he wrote to the magazine saying that, if his daughter ever so much as entertained the idea of intermarrying, “I would personally kill her and then myself, thus saving the state the expense of a hanging”11. Another parent told their daughters black fiance that he would be “signing [their] daughter’s death certificate”12. This sentiment rang true for many whites as intermarriage was social suicide. Economic analyses of interracial marriage find that, for the white counterpart, there is always a cost as whites are already at the top of the american hierarchy13. By associating with blacks in such an intimate way, whites would open themselves up to increased job insecurity, social and familial rejection and less legal protection including the loss of death benefits14. Many parents felt pressure to disown their children in the name of status and family preservation, “with a sense of necessity rather than full conviction”. Occasionally one parent or relative sought clandestine relationships15. White parents who only rejected children for social reasons “naturalized the negative consequences of intermarrying rather than seeing those consequences as a product of a racist status quo that could be fought and challenged”16.

Other parents went to extreme lengths to save their child and preserve their family’s dignity. A number of white parents, with the help from law enforcement, forced their daughters to see mental health professionals. For example, “[w]hen Helen Gallahar became romantically involved with a black lawyer in Ohio in 1950, her parents hired an attorney to have her judged insane, kidnapped her and held her prisoner, and after she escaped, hired a detective to find her. They ultimately disinherited her after she married.17” A mother of a fifteen-year-old girl went to probate court and “the judge ordered her confined in a mental hospital for thirty days...After a ninety-day stay at the mental hospital she relented and promised to break off her interracial relationship, although she married her boyfriend soon after”18. Although many white daughters were subject to severe punishment, drastic measures were rarely used, if ever, on white men19.

Gender inequality

Interracial marriage was not the same for black male-white female partnerships as it was for white male-black female partnerships. The 1960 Census revealed that 60% of interracial marriages involved a white man and a black woman. This introduces the gendered reactions to interracial marriage tying back to the idea of “blood”20. The idea of sex between black men and white women repulsed whites, while casual and often exploitative sex between white men and black women was ignored or accepted because it was normalized during slavery when the white master did what he pleased with his property. This contributed to a subversive, oppressive rape culture granting white men power over black women’s bodies21. Because of the passage of “blood” or semen from man to woman during intercourse, the white woman is thus “tainted” by sex with the black man. Anxiety surrounding this idea was heightened by 50s ideals, “McCarthyism of marriage and family”, the role of women in the home and as “designated guardians of racial purity” being the child bearing sex22. The Cold War had intensified fears of women’s liberated sexuality and was thus met with a rush to domesticity, traditional gender roles, a patriarchal, chauvinistic society which sought to further control women’s lives. This urge to domesticate combined with sexualized stereotypes of black men as lustful, uninhibited, and virile made white women marrying black men a disgrace23.

Popular media & experts

Popular media from the period reveals a general antipathy towards intermarriage within the white community. ​After a black man proposed to a young white woman, she wrote...​wrote to The Washington Post and Times Herald​ in 1959, the column wrote in response that was filled with strong disapproval. From the start, the journalist, Mary Haworth tells the young woman that “I doubt you are truly serious about marrying Joe”, that intermarrying “is not a contract for the young and foolish and headstrong to enter into carelessly, on the assumption that love solves everything”24. She describes how being rejected from your “respective cultures” would be strenuous especially for children25. This “what about the children?” rhetoric was widely used to discourage whites because, as the logic went, marriage is reversible but a child is a permanent bond and will oust you from the white community entirely26.

1950s media brought rise to the “expert” in popular culture which was used in a pseudoscience way to talk about whiteness and blackness. Although attempting to remain unbiased, they failed. For example, one researcher, Albert Isaac Gordon polled college students on their views toward interracial marriage. Gordon gives statistics showing that 78% of the American Negro population was mixed but he does not give any statistics about what that percentage was in the white community27. Blackness was all consuming because to be black you only needed to have a drop of blood, but to be deemed white was to be purely white. Further, you can be black and mixed but not white and mixed. These ideas are seen in modern day where white people do not see themselves as a race, they are just “normal”. Whiteness was always “created and defined ​against​ blackness… “white” had no meaning without its fictive opposite of blackness”.28

Mental health professionals and behavioral scientists, hid their biases by questioning the mental health of whites that decided to marry across racial lines rather than explicitly saying interracial marriage was inherently bad. Because marrying a black person had severe social consequences, these scientists attributed these tendencies to a “neurotic symptom” of an underlying psychological disorder in disturbed individuals or to exhibitionism29. One such 29expert, Joseph Golden, published a paper in the American Sociological Review in 1954 called Patterns of Negro-White Intermarriage​. Although this source is more reliable because it was published in an academic journal rather than being a sensationalized article for the public, the impress of 1950s racial politics is evident. Golden mentions that “unless the Negro partner is passable, many couples frequent Negro places of public entertainment. Those who have little regard for public disapproval, or take delight in shocking respectable circles of society, attend white places of public resort braving curious stares and audible expressions of disapproval”30. Some psychologists had Freudian explanations citing sexual deviancy or dysfunction as a motivation for intermarrying. More blamed unhappy childhoods, rebelliousness, distant parents or economic gains for poor white women31. On the whole, experts exaggerated how bad it was to be an interracial couple saying that they live “under a state of siege”, are rejected by family, friends and both black and white societies32. In his paper, Golden warns that “each of the couple is an outsider for the racial group of the other”, they are “isolated from their families” and that there is a pattern of secrecy from a concealed courtship to eloping to informal weddings and living on the outskirts of society33. He explains that children are “invariably considered Negroes” and “white spouses became Negroes socially” losing friends and jobs34. Golden is not a single example, since George Little explained that the white person may have a “tendency towards self destruction” and that interracial marriage represented the ultimate in self-degradation and “spiritual death”35. Little presented whites who intermarried as those with masochistic tendencies not daring enough to end their life. This metaphor that intermarriage equated ‘social death’ “encapsulated the fears of whites that those who intermarried lacked virtue, shamed themselves and their families, lost social status, and possibly sacrificed property of immeasurable value - their racial identity as a white person.”36  

The black community

The opinions of the black community about interracial marriage were mostly ignored until 1970 because it was assumed that only whites felt strongly about it. Most information on the attitudes of the black community on this topic come from the black press37. Unlike whites, they were not concerned with racial purity because they already had mixed roots, nor was it a matter of being discriminated against because that was already a fact of life. Blacks viewed whites as “oppressors and persecutors, inhumane and untrustworthy.”38 A 1958 poll from the Pittsburgh Courier showed that the leading explanation as to why blacks opposed interracial marriage was that they did not believe a white person could overcome stereotypes and see their partner as equal. Interracial relations and sex were associated with abuse and exploitation39. They were suspicious of whites that would make themselves vulnerable to racial hatred. Besides that, many saw marrying a white person as trying to escape blackness (similar to racial passing) because it “allowed individual success at the price of group loyalty and advancement.”40 White expert opinion agreed claiming that “for the Negro, the white person is the symbol of status and achievement and is therefore desirable as a marriage partner.”41 In some cases, intermarrying was seen as a lack of pride in the black identity, a form of assimilation than rather than “pitch in and make the race worth belonging to” they escaped to a race that’s “already made.”42 One black woman expressed in a 1951 edition of ​Ebony​ that “Every time we lose a man to a woman of another race, it means one more Negro woman will be husbandless”.43 Another charged that “black male-white female marriages were unhealthy manifestations of the sexualized racial hierarchies that defined white women as more beautiful than black women.”44 Again, white psychological experts would have agreed with this, marrying “with a white woman or even a light-skinned Negro woman is thus viewed as ‘status-giving’.”45 Blacks had many varying and mixed opinions on interracial marriage but were on the whole vastly more accepting. In a 1958 poll, 66% of southern blacks and 87% of northern blacks believed that social meetings between whites and blacks would help overcome racial discrimination; in contrast, only 49% of northern whites and 10% of southern whites agreed with the same statement46. Most blacks were not blatantly against interracial marriage because of community principles of individual freedom regardless of race47. One of the experts from the 50s that cast interracial marriage as troublesome observed that when it came to black families “their treatment of the white spouse was not conditioned to the same extent by automatic disapproval of interracial marriage, but depended on their judgement of the white spouse as a person rather than as a violator of mores”48.

Some saw it as a positive step towards ending racial discrimination or that it proved that blacks were humans capable of being loved49. Additionally, in an era “where blacks were seeking equality and racial integration, any public support for racial separatism, even in marriage, was suspect.”50 With this in mind, black leaders of the civil rights movement “sought to divorce the issue of interracial marriage from the larger civil rights agenda” because they did not always think it was best for the community yet they did not want to be hypocritical by condoning anti miscegenation laws51. Thus, there was not outspoken disdain for interracial marriage.

Thus, when interracial marriage was touched on in the newspapers it was with a much more tolerant attitude. In a 1959 edition of the ​Daily Defender ​(now called the ​Chicago Defender​), after the marriage of Dorothy Dandridge to a white man, a reader wrote to the editor that interracial marriage was “quite a problem solver for those who insist on separating the races despite the fact that all involved are human beings...Let us have more such marriages. After all we are all humans and in many instances Americans alike. Why let color of the skin be a barrier.”52 Celebrities that intermarried not only felt pressure from those against interracial 52relations but also by “well-wishers who essentially deputized them to be ambassadors of racial enlightenment.”53

Three widely read newspapers, ​Jet​, ​Ebony​, and ​Negro Digest​ were constantly talking about the positive side of interracial marriage on account of the owner of all three being in favor of it. This “refuted segregationists’ claims that the color line was a permanent barrier that could not be crossed and that whites could never accept blacks as their social equals.”54 The way they covered interracial marriage sought to normalize it: “The magazines’ frequent coverage of lavish wedding ceremonies suggested that interracial love that once had to be hidden could now be celebrated openly among family and friends.”55 This attracted some attention from people who thought the frequent coverage would intensify demands for segregation or perpetuate the bigoted belief that the only way blacks can gain equality is through association with whites56.


Graph from Gordon text


Graph from Gordon text

Changing times

Up until 1917, cases tried at the Supreme Court upheld miscegenation. Yet on the state and local level it depended: some bans were enacted as early as 1664 (Maryland), yet some states repealed it as early as 1780 (Pennsylvania)57. Antimiscegenation laws were “pernicious in every respect, limiting the choices of whites and nonwhites alike.”58 They challenged basic tenets of American identity such as individual liberty and the sanity of marriage by encouraging “interracial couple to maintain a sexual relationship outside of marriage.”59 Yet these laws came under scrutiny in the 40s and 50s. World War II and “Nazism gave racism a bad name...Hitler’s Nuremberg laws cast a pall over America’s Jim Crow Legislation.”60 A number of factors contributed to the “powerful countercurrents [that] were nourishing prospects for a freer social environment.”61 One factor was the loosening of gender roles and sexual mores as contraceptives and treatment for STIs became more accessible and reliable, more women joined the workforce during and after WWII, the “sexual libertarianism reflected in Hugh Hefner’s ​Playboy​” and the growth of colleges and universities where interracial interactions were more common.62 Schools and universities, even liberal ones, did not want the reputation of student intermarriage. Black men were chastised for talking to white women63. Black students received harsher punishment for interracial interaction. At Syracuse University, “the administration wrote letters to the parents of white students who dated blacks until student opposition put an end to the practice in 1958.”64 This, along with the data provided by Gordon is proof there was an underlying change among young people.  

Graph from USA Census

A 2007 study in the evolution of interracial marriage in the 20th century found that the occurrence of interracial interactions and the “relative supply of each racial group will affect its intermarriage rate”. For example, “Asians will be likely to have higher rates of intermarriage because they make up only 1.4% of the sample - and thus Asians live in a population where 98.6% of  the marriage prospects are non-Asian. Whites, at the other extreme, make up 87.3% of the sample, which means that they live in a population where only 12.7% of their marriage prospects are nonwhite.”65 The Great Migration contributed to a rise in interracial interactions and thus interracial marriage despite expert opinion that “Negro-white marriages are certainly not likely to occur in significant numbers within the next decade.”66

Graphs from Fryer text

As seen in these graphs, interracial marriage did see an increase in the decades after 1959. From the data he found on how college students felt about interracial relations Gordon should have been able to predict this. The percentage of students from all across America that would​ marry someone of a different race ranged from 6 to 16% from non-blacks. This is way higher than those polled in the 1958 Gallup poll that found that 1% of southern whites and 5% of whites outside the south even ​approved​ of interracial marriage let alone ​would​ intermarry.67        

This goes to show how strong the countercurrents were brewing in the 50s which exploded in the 60s. The 50s were the ultimate turning point where the suppression of new thought in teens and the unequal treatment of women began the stirrings of dissent. This applied to interracial marriage which was approached differently for men and women and caused different reactions in the white and black communities. Although America has made great progress in this area, there are still many prejudices and skewed views when it comes to interracial marriage today with the hypersexualization of mixed people and nicknames for mixed people and couples. Looking back at this history can help us recognize the microaggressions associated with mixed race and put an end to them. 


1 Renee Christine Romano, ​Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America​ (MA: Harvard,
2003), 45
2 Albert I. Gordon, ​Intermarriage: Interfaith, Interracial, Interethnic​ (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 264 
3 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 45 
4 Ibid 
5 Romano, ​Race Mixing,​ 45-47
6 Ibid, 52
7 Ibid, 51
8 Ibid, 52-53
9 Gordon, ​Intermarriage​, 268
10 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 50
11 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 49
12 Ibid, 62
13 Roland G. Fryer, “Guess Who’s Been Coming to Dinner? Trends in Interracial Marriage over the 20th Century,” ​Journal of Economic Perspectives ​21.2 (2007) 71
14 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 59
15 Ibid, 71
16 Ibid, 62
17 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 67
18 Ibid, 67
19 Ibid, 69
20 Ibid, 58
21 Ibid, 46
22 Ibid, 47-50
23 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 48-50
24 Mary Haworth, “Should She Marry Him? Her Parents Say ‘No’,” ​Washington Post and Times​, July 9, 1959
25 Ibid
26 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 73-74
27 Gordon, ​Intermarriage​, 264
28 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 52
29 Ibid, 54
30 Joseph Golden, “Patterns of Negro-White Intermarriage,” ​American Sociological Review ​19.2 (1954) 144
31 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 55
32 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 57
33 Golden, “Patterns of Negro-White Intermarriage,” 144
34 Ibid, 144
35 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 57
36 Ibid, 58
37 Ibid, 84
38 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 85
39 Ibid, 85
40 Ibid, 86
41 Gordon, ​Intermarriage​, 268
42 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 88
43 Ibid, 87
44 Ibid, 87
45 Gordon, ​Intermarriage​, 268
46 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 94
47 Ibid, 90
48 Golden, “Patterns of Negro-White Intermarriage,” 146
49 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 91-94
50 Ibid, 90
51 Ibid, 96
52 “Let’s Call it ‘No Margin For Love’,” ​Chicago Defender​, March 30, 1959
53 ​Randall Kennedy, “The Post-World War II Loosening of the Black-White Interracial-Intimacy Taboo,” in Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption​, ed. Randall Kennedy et al. (New York: Pantheon, 2003), 99.
54 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 92
55 Ibid, 92
56 Ibid, 56
57 Peter Wallenstein, ​Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race Marriage, and Law: An American History​ (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 45
58 Ibid, 45
59 Ibid, 45
60 Kennedy, “Post-World-War II,” 98
61 Ibid, 98
62 Ibid, 99
63 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 64
64 Ibid, 64
65 Fryer, “Guess Who’s Been Coming to Dinner?,” 77
66 Gordon, ​Intermarriage​, 269
67 Romano, ​Race Mixing​, 45