Following My Intellectual Bliss

westbrook-katie-kennedy-center-W14by Katie Westbrook, Winter 2014

I have always been fascinated by the history of marriage discrimination and how  this history applies to couples today.

For years I have wondered about the similarities between the interracial and same-sex marriage movements.  How can the latter use these similarities to its advantage?

When applying to the CAPPP Quarter in Washington Program I immediately knew that I wanted to take a closer look at these two movements. The program gave me the unique opportunity to answer these questions, a chance to design my own curriculum for a quarter, “pursuing my intellectual bliss,” as Carol Wald, CAPPP’s program administrator, likes to say.

research word cloudBeginning My Research Journey

When I started my research project in DC, my first move was to go back to the Loving v. Virginia decision to understand the strategies that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) used to win the case.

Next I turned to the Hollingsworth v. Perry decision, the court case that overturned Proposition 8, a law that sought to make same-sex marriage illegal in California. I compared the strategies that attorneys used to challenge these two laws.

Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, the couples who were the plaintiffs in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry.( photo credit: FreedomtoMarry.org)
Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, the couples who were the plaintiffs in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry.( photo credit: FreedomtoMarry.org)

I also wanted to track public opinion during the cases. So I used UC databases and public surveys, conducted by research companies such as Gallup Polls  or Pew Research Centers to gather information on public opinion, national statistics, legislative policies, statements from judges, and anything else I could get my hands on.

But what really drove me to do this research was the dramatic story of the Lovings. Their tale is so much more than statistics and dry court transcripts. With great courage, the Lovings endured a painful and terrifying ordeal and eventually triumphed.

Mildred and Richard Loving

One night in 1958, about a month after Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter married,  the sheriff of Caroline County, Virginia awoke them and arrested them  for violating the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Soon after, they were expelled from the state of Virginia.

Yes, I said expelled, and as you can see by the year, we are not talking about ancient times.

The couple left their lives and everyone they knew behind because they had broken the law. They had committed the heinous crime of being married to someone whose skin color was different from theirs.

If that story felt like a letdown to anyone it’s probably because you think that a white man and a black woman in love doesn’t exactly sound like a felony. But back then, in Virginia it was.

Fighting for the Freedom to Marry

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter Loving in 1967 (photo credit: Wikipedia)
Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter Loving in 1967 (photo credit: Wikipedia)

 The Lovings, like many others, rejected the idea that the races should not mingle.

This concept was a part of the system of Jim Crow laws  that legalized discrimination throughout the South after the Civil War.

With the aid of the ACLU, the Lovings fought their banishment in a national court case, Loving v. Virginia, and on June 12, 1967, won.

The Supreme Court decision legalized interracial marriage in the entire country and established the right of all American citizens to marry.

And yet today not all American citizens enjoy this right. Across the nation we currently debate whether this right should extend to couples involving two people of the same sex.

These two marriage movements would seem to have a lot in common; in fact it may seem as though same-sex couples are fighting a battle that was already waged and won. Yet gay couples are still struggling to win that same right.

Source: yoism.org
Source: yoism.org

My Findings: Important Differences

When I analyzed my comparison of these two discrimination cases, as expected, I found many similarities between the movement to legalize interracial marriage and the recent movement to legalize gay marriage.

Mainly, each based their arguments against discriminatory legislation on the claim that such laws violated the 14th amendment,  which grants each citizen the right to equal protection under the law and the right to due process of law–pillars of our ideal of fair and just treatment for all Americans.

Also, like interracial marriages, same-sex marriages are seeing increasing support from the American public, due in large part to the greater diversity and tolerance in the country.

A Gallup poll showing that support for gay marriage has trended above 50% in the past 17 years as of 2013.
A Gallup poll showing that support for gay marriage has trended above 50% in the past 17 years as of 2013.

Yet I also found some differences.

Most importantly, Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage nationally with just one court case. Same-sex marriage seems to be an issue that is being fought out state by state, at least so far.

If the same-sex marriage equality movement continues to use the 14th amendment as a defense and public support for it continues to rise, little could stop this form of marriage from achieving the success that the Lovings saw.

A Personal Connection

These similarities aren’t the only connections from that century to this one. I chose this topic for my research because the issue holds a special meaning in my life.

A little over 20 years after the Loving v. Virginia decision, a black man and a white woman met and married in DC. The couple moved out to Southern California and had two beautiful daughters. One of those little girls was me.

The Rainbow Zebra (author unknown)
The Rainbow Zebra (author unknown)

As a child, I knew that my family was different from others, but I didn’t really know what this difference meant.

My parents worked hard to give us positive ideas about ourselves.

Some of my earliest memories were of my parents reading me stories such as The Rainbow Zebra,  an African folk tale of a zebra who fails to fit in but eventually learns that his different stripes make him beautiful.

In high school, I learned about  Mildred and Richard Loving in my AP Government and US History classes. Finally I knew who to thank for making my parents’ marriage possible.

Marriage discrimination has, is,and always will be an important topic in my life. If the Lovings had not fought back, I would not be alive today.

Master of My Own Destiny

The Westbrook family
The Westbrook family

I am forever grateful to the CAPPP  Quarter in Washington Program for letting me study a topic near and dear to my heart.

I spent an entire quarter basically creating my own curriculum, learning about things that  fascinate me.

Master of my own destiny, I pursued my intellectual bliss and wrote a 25 page paper in the process, an accomplishment that I am incredibly proud of.

I could not have achieved this feat without the CAPPP Quarter in Washington Program.

April 10, 2015 marks the 48th anniversary of the opening of Supreme Court oral arguments in the Loving v. Virginia case. You can listen on line to excerpts from the arguments.

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