There is a poignant significance to the passing last week of Mildred Loving at a time when a biracial senator leads the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Their stories are connected by time, skin color and a Supreme Court decision.
Mildred and Richard P. Loving had been married only five weeks in 1958 when the sheriff burst into their Central Point, Va., bedroom with two deputies. They shined flashlights in the couple's eyes and a menacing voice demanded, "Who is this woman you're sleeping with?" When Richard pointed to their marriage certificate on a wall, the sheriff responded, "That's no good here."
Their District of Columbia marriage license was "no good" because Richard was white and Mildred was black in a small Virginia town in 1958, when it was one of 16 states that banned interracial marriage.
The raid, sparked by an anonymous tip, resulted in a night in jail for Richard, several more for Mildred, a felony conviction and a ban on returning to Virginia at the same time for 25 years. They returned to their home state sooner than that, thanks to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in their case, Loving v. Virginia, that overturned state anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.
Mildred died Friday at her home in Central Point. She was 68. Richard died in a car accident in 1975.
Four decades after the court decision that bears their poignantly appropriate name, the world feels like a very different place, thanks in part to that ruling.
Interracial marriages have multiplied as American attitudes toward race have relaxed. Since 1970, the number of married people in the United States who have a spouse of another race has climbed from less than two per 100 to almost eight per 100, according to Stanford University's Michael J. Rosenfeld, an assistant professor of sociology and a leading specialist on interracial marriage trends.
Among Mr. Rosenfeld's other findings: The Lovings did not set a trend, genderwise. White women are still about twice as likely to be married to a black man as white men to a black woman. About three white men per 1,000 and about seven white women per 1,000 were married to a black person in 2005. At the same time, almost 8 percent of black men and about 3.5 percent of black women were married to a white person. A much higher percentage of Asian men (25.8 percent) and women (33.7 percent) were married to whites.
And as times have changed, so have the questions. Hardly a week goes by, for example, without my receiving at least one e-mail that asks, "Why does Barack Obama say he is black?"
Writes Ron of Jacksonville, "There is the media hype that Obama would be the first black president. Not true. He would be the first racially mixed president." Maybe Ron is a young man who hasn't heard about the "one-drop rule," a peculiarly American custom that says one drop of black blood makes you black.
The census now allows Americans to check off as many racial boxes as they think apply. That legacy of Loving may do more than anything else to undo race as we have known it.
But changing the labels or even ignoring them will not eradicate race-related problems of income and equality. The growth of interracial marriages in the military offers an example of what can occur across racial lines in the closest thing we have to a colorblind society. The Army sees only one color, I was told after I was drafted in 1969: Army green. In accord with that dictum, census figures show intermarriage more than twice as likely in the military for all racial groups except Asian men.
That's a reflection of how long the military has been integrated into one unified, egalitarian and meritocratic culture. Significantly, the military has a level playing field that is ordered from the top down and obeyed by a military culture that is by nature intolerant of nonconformity.
But in establishing a right to marry whom you please regardless of race, the Loving decision also has touched off a heated debate over whether the right to marry should be extended to couples of the same sex.
Frankly, I don't see how anyone else's marriage would make my marriage any weaker, as opponents of gay marriage suggest. Nevertheless, I expect that debate to continue for a while. Public resistance to interracial marriage was a lot weaker in the late 1960s than resistance to gay marriages is today.
American attitudes toward race have relaxed considerably. Our attitudes toward sex are still pretty uptight.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.