Last night, LitSpouse and I attended a viewing of the documentary The Loving Story and a panel discussion afterwards about the Supreme Court case that ended miscegenation laws. It was eye-opening in many ways; I encourage people to become familiar with Loving v. Virginia and to see the movie if they enjoy documentaries. The most interesting parts were comments made by the panelists about the relevance of the same ideas and arguments in many of today’s discourses about marriage, equality, rights, and liberties.
In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were convicted of being in an interracial marriage (to which they pled guilty, because they were) and sentenced to one year in jail, with the sentence suspended if they left Virginia for the next 25 years. They were from a very rural part of Virginia and had a hard time adapting to living in urban DC; they wanted to live near their families. The film does an excellent job of describing the legal wrangling that followed, using film footage from the early 1960s of the Lovings, their lawyers, and contemporary news broadcasts about the issue. When the case went to the Supreme Court in 1967, Virginia’s law against interracial marriage was declared unconstitutional, along with similar laws in 15 other states.
Some of the details in the film are really amazing; I had no idea this case, and the subsequent elimination of these laws, was so recent. (I first learned the word “miscegenation” in ninth grade when my high school was doing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Showboat. I had to ask my mother why the mixed-race family had to move away when their background was discovered. I suppose that’s progress of a sort, although ignorance of history is not the coin with which I would buy that kind of progress.)
The film really focuses on Mildred Loving, as she is the most moving character of the whole story, and manages to be emotionally engaging and present relevant information at the same time. If documentary films aren’t your cup of tea, the Wikipedia article linked above has some of the same details, including the breathtakingly racist opinion rendered by the Virginia court, but to see Mildred Loving as a person, the film is your best bet.
The panel discussion afterwards included Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Phip Hirschkop, one of the original attorneys to argue Loving v. Virginia before the Supreme Court, and Nancy Buirsky, filmmaker.
Ms. Buirsky said openly that one of the goals of the film was to create empathy through a personal connection between the viewer and Mildred Loving. (It’s not that her husband wasn’t an empathetic figure; it’s that he was extremely laconic, so most of the commentary on how they just wanted to live a quiet life together came from Mildred. Some of the photos of the two of them helped me connect with him, but he was manifestly uncomfortable in front of video cameras.) Ms. Buirsky’s explicit acknowledgment of the role empathy plays in our social discourse and changing attitudes was refreshingly realistic.
Rep. Scott spoke about the spirit of the times in the late 1960s and how much change there has – and has not – been since then on matters of discrimination. He said that many people misread Brown v. Board of Education as implying that equal provision in separated circumstances would be permissible; he emphasized that Brown v. Board found separation itself to be unconstitutional. He said that he thought civil rights legislation was being undermined by “faith-based” initiatives today: the government tells private business owners that they can’t discriminate in hiring employees who they’ll pay with their own money, while the government gives money to organizations who are legally allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices.
Rep. Nadler spoke movingly about how he saw a lot of the history of this country as an expansion of the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, especially expansions like including women and people of all races as “equal,” or at least trying to.
Mr. Hirschkop followed that up by saying that he found the next phrase even more important, “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Those rights, he argued, are not granted by society, they are ours at birth, and society has to learn to protect them.
Some discussion followed about how the Loving case is and isn’t a precedent for the fight for marriage equality for QUILTBAG people today. The most telling point on that front, for me, was when the film played a recording of the attorney general for Virginia in the Loving case arguing that the state needed to prevent interracial marriage to protect the children. 
When I hear conservatives fighting a rearguard action against marriage equality using the same arguments today, and being eloquently refuted by the children they purport to protect, I am certain, in a way I never have been before, that marriage equality will come to pass. 
As we left the screening, which was held in the US Capitol Visitors’ Center, the setting sun made the Supreme Court building positively seem to glow. You can’t read it in the photo, but that frieze on top of the Supreme Court building reads “Equal Justice Under Law.” May it be so!
 One of the justices asked him if that wasn’t similar to the argument made in Brown v. Board, and he said it was. Brown had been decided 13 years earlier, so aligning one’s position with the losing arguments in a previous case is what I believe lawyers refer to as “not a wise move.”
 For more on the historical changes in state and religious regulation of marriage, see Stephanie Coontz’ excellent article.
Edited for clarity and flow and to add link in endnotes.