Stephen Gottlieb: Dr. King’s Message Of Love
Yesterday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. We are still much too far from a post-racial society. For the big victories of the Civil Rights Movement, we think of Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the Rehnquist Court did its best to chip away, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which the Roberts Court is doing its best to tear up. There was another victory that I’d like to talk about, just a few years after Martin Luther King shared his dream at the Lincoln Memorial.
It often seems like a postscript to Dr. King’s legacy but was actually at its very core. When the NAACP planned its attack on school segregation, they started with graduate schools, racking up a string of victories so that any other decision in Brown would have flatly violated the teaching of a whole group of recent precedents abandoning separation in law school, medical school, graduate school in one state after another. But until Brown they didn’t touch grade school. They had concluded that grade school would be the most inflammatory and most difficult because of southern fear of what they called miscegenation, marriage between whites and Blacks. There was a sense in which worrying about marriage of kids in elementary school rather than adults in graduate school seemed backwards. But they understood the fear and went with it.
Fear of intermarriage was a very big deal with reason. Sociologists have been finding that one of the main ways Americans have been putting stereotypes and prejudices behind them has been intermarriage, not just Blacks and whites, but Jews and Christians, whites and Asians, different white ethnic groups, and now the marriage of gay or lesbian children of straight families, all of us to some degree have been marrying out of our ancestral groups, introducing our families and producing children who celebrate all sides of their heritage. Marriage and intermarriage matter.
Rabbis don’t like Jews to intermarry – they’re afraid to lose another Jew to the assimilated culture. When Jeanette and I married, it was hard to find a rabbi who’d marry us. There are a lot of mixed families in our Temple, creating the loving, open community we love.
In the 1950s Mildred Delores Jeter grew up down the road from Richard Loving in rural Virginia. Richard was a white bricklayer; Mildred a young Black girl. In that part of the state, Blacks and whites often socialized, but didn’t marry. Mildred and Richard weren’t thinking of Dr. King or making a racial statement. They just fell in love, married and wanted to raise a family together. For that they were arrested, jailed, convicted and kicked out of Virginia. They were together until, tragically, Richard was killed in a traffic accident nearly twenty years later.
The year Martin Luther King shared his great dream with us, Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their inability to visit family and friends in Virginia. Kennedy sent them to the ACLU whose lawyers brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967 the Warren Court gave us the historic decision of Loving v. Virginia, one of its great decisions, establishing the right to marry, and marry without discrimination.
That part of the Civil Rights Movement seems resilient and lasting – we keep meeting, befriending and learning to love each other. The world changes, though slowly. It has always seemed appropriate to me that they were Mildred and Richard Loving. Dr. King’s was a message of love; love needs to run this world.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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