Before the controversy about gay marriage hit society, the hottest nuptial debate centred around interracial marriage – the precursor to international marriage. Laws were enacted to ban interracial marriage, especially in the south of America. Interracial marriage would not be legalized there until 1967. Although it is widely known that the Deep South was not kind to interracial mingling, other states actually banned interracial marriage for some time as well. For instance, interracial marriage was banned in California up till 1948. Some politicians even attempted to make interracial marriage banned across the entire nation by amending the U.S. Constitution.
The history of international marriage bans in the United States goes back to 1664. At that time, white people who married black people were seen as a disgrace to America for forsaking their freeborn status. Maryland was the first state to pass a British colonial law prohibiting the intermarriage of white and black people. In particular, the law decreed that white women who chose to marry black men were to be enslaved to the black man’s master themselves, along with their children. However, this law did not specify what would happen to white men who married black women, or white women who married free black men.
The 1691 law by the Commonwealth of Virginia addressed this omission, gaining such favor with the Maryland government that they incorporated this new law as well. Any white man or woman who married a black, mulatto or Indian person, whether enslaved or free, was to be exiled within three months after the marriage. In that era, to be exiled was as good as being sentenced to death. Additionally, any offspring born to a white woman from such a union was referred to as a “bastard” child, and the woman would have to pay a fine of fifteen pounds (nearly 1,800 pounds in today’s currency) to the Church. The child would be enslaved until thirty years of age. Later on in 1705, the Commonwealth of Virginia expanded the policy, requiring any minister who performed a marriage between a white and non-white person to pay a hefty fine of 20,000 pounds (over 2.1 million pounds in today’s currency). Half of that amount was to be paid to the informant.
Pennsylvania was another state that passsed a ban on interracial marriage in 1725, but it was later repealed in 1780 in an attempt to abolish slavery and grant equal rights to black people. This was followed by Massachusetts repealing its law in 1843. However, this only increased the disparity between the north and south in terms of where they stood on people’s rights. Those who were still strongly rooted in traditional beliefs continued to oppose marriage rights. In 1871, Rep. Andrew King, D-Mo was the first to propose that a ban on interracial marriage throughout the country be added to the U.S. constitutional amendment, although the proposal did not go through. The second attempt occurred in 1912 by Rep. Seaborn Roddenbery, D-Ga., and the third and final attempt was in 1928 by Sen. Coleman Blease, D-S.C., a Ku Klux Klan supporter. All three attempts failed.
Despite the state bans, interracial unions continued to happen. This resulted in the 1883 case of Pace v. Alabama, where Tony Pace, a black man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, were both sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for violating Section 4189 of the Alabama Code by being an interracial couple. The court unanimously ruled that since both people were sentenced to the same punishment, regardless of being black or white, the state’s conviction did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
A similar case arose later on in 1964. In McLaughlin v. Florida, the court heard that a black-white couple had been convicted under Statute 798.05 of the Florida law, which prohibited any pair of black and white people from living together if they were not married. Since the state law made it illegal for blacks and whites to intermarry, there was no way of getting around the rule in an interracial couple. Here, the court unanimously ruled that the Florida Statute 798.05 was unconstitutional as it went against the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteeneth Amendment. In retrospect, the case was compared to the previous Pace v. Alabama and the incongruence was noted. Although the laws banning interracial relationships were struck down in this decision, the laws banning interracial marriage itself remained until the next controversial case.
Three years later, in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, another black-white couple was convicted after they went to the District of Columbia to get married and returned to Virginia. The couple was sentenced to one year in jail, with the possibility of a 25-year suspension on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return for 25 years. In despair, they moved to Washington D.C. and lived in poverty for five years, but were arrested again when they returned to Virginia to visit family. The case was brought to court, where the court ruled that marriage is a basic civil right and the state should not have the power to oppose it. This ruling was a monumental decision that set a precedent for years to come. Although marriage rights are not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, the court held that marriage is a basic survival decision and thus resides in the domain of the individual, rather than the state. This went against the popular belief that anything not directly spelled out in the Constitution cannot be a constitutional right. Thereafter, many states began to legalize interracial and international marriage. Alabama was the last state to do so, holding tightly on to its Section 102 until November 2000.
Not all controversial marriages were between black and white parties. In the early 20th century, anti-miscegenation laws also began to extend to marriage between a Caucasian and an Asian, following an outburst of anti-Asian xenophobia. In particular, Asian Americans were regarded as “aliens” ineligible for American citizenship. Any white person who married an Asian would have their citizenship revoked. This law was used to strip two American-born women of their citizenship – Mary Keatinge Das, wife of a Pakistani American, and Emily Chinn, wife of a Chinese American. The prejudice against white-Asian marriages would remain until the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.
Today, we live in a society that has come to be more accepting of different cultures. International marriage is no longer as hot a topic as it was in the past. Foreign-born people can now become United States citizens, of which one way can be through marriage. It is not uncommon to find mixed-race people or families, including children who are adopted by parents of a different race.
Despite the progress the world has made, we still have a long way to go before society completely loses its grip on interracial stigma. White supremacy is still a very prevalent problem in the south, where some people may believe that the races should not mix. One example is Mississippi, where a 2011 poll found that a considerable number of Republicans still supported bans on international marriage. With the recent focus on LGBT marriage rights, it may be that the rules of marriage are revisited once more.
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