Home Opinion Civiletti Denise Civiletti: Reflections on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court...

Denise Civiletti:
Reflections on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision on interracial marriage

Butch and Linda Langhorn, of Riverhead, who were married in 1968, one year after the Supreme Court decision that invalidated laws banning interracial marriage. Courtesy photo.

June — the month of weddings, Father’s Day, graduations and pride.

And June is, fittingly, the month of Loving — Loving v. Virginia, that is.

Loving is the landmark Supreme Court civil rights ruling handed down on this date in 1967 — 50 years ago — that invalidated laws banning interracial marriage.

Yes, banning interracial marriage was common in the USA, and as recently as 1967 it was still illegal in a dozen states. One of them was Virginia, where its Racial Integrity Act of 1924 prohibited marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored.” The anti-miscegenation laws aimed to protect the “purity” of the white race by banning inter-racial marriage and sexual relations.

Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, lived in Virginia but in June 1958 went to Washington D.C. to get married (since they were not allowed to marry in Virginia). They made a home together in Central Point, Virginia. Based on an anonymous tip, local police raided their home, found them asleep in their bed and arrested them.

They were convicted of violating the Virginia anti-miscegenation law, a felony and were each sentenced to one year in prison.

For marrying each other.

Mildred and Richard Loving. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

The U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision, invalidated anti-miscegenation laws in the Loving case, overturning the couple’s felony convictions.

This sounds almost surreal today, right? But 50 years is really not all that long ago. And while landmark civil rights rulings may change laws immediately, they don’t necessarily change attitudes or social norms overnight.

Riverhead native Butch Langhorn married Linda Ignaczak of Ridge in July 1968, just one year after the Loving decision. New York is one of nine states that never had an anti-miscegenation statute — something 30 out of the 50 states had enacted and enforced prior to the beginning of the civil rights era.

“We never thought about that aspect of it,” Langhorn said in an interview yesterday.

Langhorn grew up in Polish Town and had many white friends his whole life.

“I just thought I was in love with a woman who happened to be a white woman,” he recalled.

But that wasn’t how others saw it — some family members, acquaintances and neighbors who didn’t like the idea of them building their home in what was then an all-white Calverton neighborhood.

“Linda’s parents did everything but want to shoot me,” he said. After the couple’s first child was born, “they saw who I was, what I was about. But her father would introduce me to others as ‘this is Linda’s husband. He’s Indian.” Langhorn said he is, in fact, one-quarter Native American. “I told him that once,” he laughed.

It wasn’t too different with his own family, even his mother. The newlyweds even moved to Queens for a while to escape the bad feelings. But they didn’t like it there and moved back home.

“When we would go shopping, a lot of times people would stare,” he recalled. “They usually wouldn’t make too many comments. But I’d say, ‘Yes she’s my wife. Do you have anything against that?’ We learned to live with it,” he said.

“Linda and I had our concerns when the kids came — what the reaction would be with the kids. There was never a problem in school here in Riverhead,” he said.

Langhorn recalled being treated harshly by state police in Pennsylvania when he was pulled over for speeding at 2 a.m. He was driving his family to visit friends in Michigan.

“They were shining flashlights on the kids sleeping in the back seat and asking us all kinds of questions. They treated me like a criminal instead of someone who was speeding on a deserted highway in the middle of the night,” he said. “They made me get out of the car and searched me.” His wife, upset, “got smart with them,” he said. “I told her to shut up, afraid I was going to get in real trouble.”

“They were taking me to a magistrate’s house and they wanted me to leave my wife and kids right there on the interstate, but I refused. Then they let me drive them to the next rest stop and I had to leave them there. That was the first time I got a real taste of being treated in a certain way because I was black and had a white wife. I could tell they didn’t like it,” Langhorn said.

He got the same vibe from some neighbors in the Timber Park neighborhood where he built the family home. First, a man in the neighborhood questioned him — in a not-very-neighborly way — about what he was doing with the property and “what kind of home” he planned to build.

After it was built, he said, they called his commander — Langhorn is a career military man who served for 31 years before retiring in 1999 — asking, “What does this guy do for you?”

“My commander was trying to figure out who this was and why they were asking all these crazy questions. They told him: ‘He’s building a beautiful home and putting sod down. How can he afford to do this?”

Langhorn laughs out loud. “I used to go to the sod farms when they were cutting and pick up scraps,” he said. He explained that to his commander.

“‘I’m busting my back,’ I told him. Being black and plus married to a white woman, that ain’t supposed to happen.”

However unlikely it was in the beginning, Langhorn’s marriage lasted 46 years. His wife passed away at age 65 in 2014 after battling colon cancer.

There’s no turning back — or is there?

The same kind of thinking — and similar legal arguments — prevailed in support of bans against same-sex marriage until two years ago, when the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in June 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges) ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

There are plenty of conservative jurists on the federal bench today including some seated on the highest court in the land, who subscribe to the theory of “originalism” in interpreting the U.S. Constitution. They argue that the meaning of the document should not be expanded beyond what people living when its provisions were adopted would have understood the ordinary meaning of the text to be.

The authors of 14th Amendment did not have same-sex marriage in mind when they wrote the equal protection clause, because the concept of “marriage” in 1868, when the 14th Amendment was adopted and ratified, was limited to a union between a man and a woman. And though it was adopted in the period following the Civil War known as the Reconstruction, its authors did not intend for it to confer the right to marry outside one’s own race. Indeed, in 1868 states all over the Union — in the South and in the North as well as in the West — had anti-miscegenation laws on the books.

Originalists — and the politicians who favor this legal theory — believe the Supreme Court, starting in the 1950s, went “too far.” Many oppose the concept of substantive due process, which confers protection on rights deemed fundamental even if not specifically mentioned in the Constitution — for example, the right to privacy.

There are currently 132 vacancies in the federal judiciary. (There are 13 nominations pending as of today.) Three of the Supreme Court justices who were in the majority in the 5-4 Obergefell decision are the oldest justices seated on the current court: Anthony Kennedy, age 81, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, age 84 and Stephen Breyer, age 79.

President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have an opportunity to shape jurisprudence in the United States for generations to come.

The originalist jurists they have pledged to appoint — particularly to the high court — will certainly rule on re-litigated issues such as the right to marry, the right to privacy and other substantive due process questions affecting American life as we have come to know it. Who knows, in this era of nationalism and the resurgence of the white supremacy movement in the USA, maybe we’ll even see a return to the days when states could lawfully regulate whether races may intermarry.

The demonized judiciary, blamed by tea partiers and neocons for usurping legislative authority or infringing on states’ rights, in my opinion is the branch of government that protects individual freedom and fundamental rights from the tyranny of the majority. It’s not an abstract concept — it’s your freedom and mine: the freedom to marry or the freedom to use contraception, for example (a right recognized by the Supreme Court in 1965 under the umbrella of the right to privacy), the equal right to opportunities to get an education, get a job, rent an apartment or buy a house, regardless of race, gender or sexual identity.

I’m not ready to have my rights rolled back to what they were in the 18th Century when the Constitution was drafted or even to the 19th Century when the 14th Amendment was adopted. Are you? It’s not too far-fetched to worry about that today, given those who hold the power to shape the federal bench and the high court openly pledge allegiance to originalist theory.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.