For Ken Tanabe, a 28 year old designer of Belgian-Japanese descent, June 12 is sacred. That’s the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against laws that would have made his own parents’ marriage illegal.
Until 1967, states could ban interracial marriages and even send the bride and groom to prison. In 1959, the Virginia Circuit Court found Richard and Mildred Loving—she’s black; he was white—guilty of violating that state’s ban. The Lovings were sentenced to one year in jail, which was later suspended on the condition that the couple leave the state and not return for 25 years. They moved to Washington, D.C., and were later vindicated on June 12, 1967, by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. Ruling in Loving v. Virginia, the court struck down all state laws barring interracial marriage and held that denying “this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes” was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Today, Tanabe has now made it his mission to educate his fellow Americans about the history of miscegenation laws. To that end, he created Loving Day in 2004. Part annual holiday celebrated on the decision’s anniversary, part educational website, lovingday.org offers an interactive legal map, real couples’ testimonials, short videos celebrating interracial couples, and the courtroom history of key miscegenation laws.
Define Loving Day. Loving Day is the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, which reversed all the state laws outlawing interracial couples. A lot of people fought it. In Alabama, the law against interracial couples was on the books until 2000.
Loving Day falls just six days from Juneteenth. Any relationship? Juneteenth celebrates the liberation of slaves in the U.S. It’s not officially recognized by the government or a Hallmark holiday, but it’s huge. Churches, families, social groups, and organizations get together. I thought, “That’s the way to do it.” I wanted to take something historically negative and make it into a positive, to structure it around an event people can use every year to be reminded of this case and celebrate it.
Interracial couples have been legal for some time, but these are old wounds. People have a hard time talking about this subject because it seems so personal. They don’t see it as part of the civil rights struggle.
Do you think it’s about sex? It is and it’s not. The laws were about marriage, but often also about sex. The laws would talk about unlawful fornication, adultery, concubinage, and cohabitation. Sex is a part of the conversation.
Do you have to be part of an interracial couple to attend Loving Day parties? The way I like to think about that is: If you wanted to march with Martin Luther King Jr., did you have to black? No. The holiday or idea is open to anyone who’s against discrimination on the basis of race. It focuses on the relationship side of it, but it’s really about racism and being against it. Also, these laws prosecuted everybody—regardless of face. People who value freedom and equality are offended and outraged at the idea that the law could discriminate this way.
Is there a specific goal you’re trying to achieve? The goal is for the Loving decision to become a part of our civil rights history and be as well recognized as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. We need to make this part of our household language and everyday vocabulary. We know about Brown, Plessy, and lunch counter sit-ins, but relatively few know about Loving.
Do you get hate mail? Yes. Here’s one of my favorites: “Pathetic site, what’s next? Marrying your dog? You can’t mix humans with black filth.” One of my top five referrers was a white supremacist website advocating laws against interracial couples. It had burning crosses and Confederate flags. I was totally shocked.
What’s the relevance of Loving v. Virginia today? Prejudice and racism are quite alive and well when it comes to interracial couples. People think it’s a preference thing—as in, “I don’t care what everyone else does but my daughter is not marrying a black man.” Loving Day speaks directly to that.
The more interesting stories are where people are working through their issues. One woman is white, her fiancée’s Asian, and her uncle is racist against Asians because he fought in the Korean War. Because he loves his niece, though, he decided he’s going to have brunch with her future husband every Sunday until he gets over it. In America, we’re used to the black/white angle when you think racism, not necessarily Asian/white or Native American/white.