June 12th is Loving Day. The day commemorates a monumental US Supreme Court case with an interracial couple at its center.
In 1958, two residents of Virginia, a black woman and a white man were married in the District of Columbia. The couple returned home to Virginia shortly thereafter. They were quickly charged with violating the state’s antimiscegenation statute, which banned interracial marriages. The couple was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail. The trial judge, however, offered up a unique alternative: He agreed to suspend the sentence if the couple would leave Virginia and not return.
If you know me or have read some of my other essays you know that I went for three years to an extremely strict and regimented “fundamental” Baptist boarding school as a high-schooler between 1977 and 1980 called Maranatha, located in Watertown, Wisconsin. Watertown is in a lot of ways an anytown, America. A main street, a malt shop, more than several bars, an elaborate brick Catholic church with a steeple visible from most parts of town. The languid Rock River meanders through it. It was about sixty miles from my childhood home in Fox Point. And a world away.
I was raised in the outskirts of ferment that was the relationship between my alcoholic and narcissistic mother and my father, the gentle martyr as mitigated only by my nanny, Linda and my older brother and best friend, Chris. Chris, however, was sent to Maranatha a year before me. That final year at home left me alone. The sole remaining target of my mother’s unrelenting criticism, but also my father’s seemingly boundless love. He and I became very close that year as he entered the autumn of his parenting while still wearing his summer clothes.
He, unlike others, however, was acutely aware of the passing of his days. And though he lamented sending his two youngest away, he agreed with my mother that it would save us from the drug and rock & roll culture their two older children indulged, which they blamed on the local public high school.
My brother Chris would return on weekends and my heart would warm again. We’d go skateboarding or play ball in our park-like yard the way we had for a decade before. But when he left on Sunday evenings, a deep sadness percolated again. On those weekends I began to hear of a young man who was Chris’ “prayer captain.” A prayer captain, as it turns out, is the person who heads a dorm room at Maranatha. Everything there had a religious euphemism.
Doug (not his real name) was a swarthy, plumpish man with a great sense of humor. He loved music and theater. He was smart as a whip. He had the tenor voice of an angel, singing in a quartet called “Men of Song.” And he was described by my brother as the sole reason he made it through his first year in this foreign and cold place.
You see, only a handful of high-schoolers (academy kids) boarded at Maranatha. The dorms were filled with Maranatha Baptist Bible College students. As such, having an academy kid assigned to your room was a nuisance. A sad reminder that this wasn’t really college, maybe. Boys were put six to a room there—three bunk beds in a room about 20’ x 12’. Your closet was two pieces of masking tape demarking a section of the single closet rod that rimmed one side of the room divided by the door in the middle. The facing side had two windows.
As the summer of 1977 cascaded toward autumn, I found myself anticipating my own transplantation to Maranatha. I was filled with mixed feelings. I knew I would miss my father very much. Ambivalent between a dysfunctional home and being a king in a misfit world, I headed out with Chris on a hot August day to Watertown for the first time as a student. For the first time as a boarder. I say “king” because I wasn’t entering cold the way he did. Chris had paved the way for me, and I was immediately part of the clique that formed the most popular kids in the small school. The true potentate was Chuck Davis, the impish, blond son of the college’s Vice President and the most popular kid at school. Chuck was the Ferris Bueller of Maranatha. He, Chris and I became inseparable with skateboarding and sarcasm as our bonds.
Nepotism being what it is, Maranatha had a policy of placing brothers together in one dorm room. Somehow Chris worked it out for us to be in the dorm room with Doug as prayer captain. I, in fact, occupied the bunk directly above Doug. It was then that I got to know the kind and funny man/boy who Chris had described. He had a sense of design, loved the color orange and always had something funny to say. His smile exuded a boyish charm.
I’m not really sure where Chris’ first year dorm room was, but our room that year was positioned such that the two aforementioned windows faced the football field and the women’s dorms well beyond it to the northwest. To the south were the train tracks upon which the Amtrak would roll by twice a day. Once very early headed east to Milwaukee and again very late, around 11:00pm heading toward Minneapolis.
I didn’t do well at Maranatha. Loneliness and immaturity calcified into resentment. I felt I was being deprived of a normal childhood. The joy left me—what there was of it. I acted out. I modeled the arrogant behaviors of my mother. I rebelled. It wasn’t difficult as the rules strictly dictated everything about you; how you wore your hair, the clothes you wore, your bedtime—10:00pm sharp. There was no television, no jazz, even your Sports Illustrated was heavily redacted so that you wouldn’t accidentally see a woman’s thigh. In a word the rules were ridiculous. If they thought your hair was too long, they’d forcibly cut it. Touching a girl’s hair once got me five hard swats to the behind with a board. With each stinging blow I grit my teeth harder in defiance.
When that train rolled by at 11:00pm I often wished through silent tears that it would take me with it. Somewhere, anywhere but here.
One winter’s night after Doug led us in our nightly devotionals (an activity including Bible reading, praying and sharing) the familiar “lights out!” resonated down the linoleum-tiled hallway. Doug got up to turn off the lights but rather than simply turning them off he flashed them three times. As it turns out Doug was saying goodnight to a young woman with whom he had fallen in love, Pamela (not her real name). She could see our windows from her dorm room beyond the football field. I remember thinking even then how charming that was.
Dating had a unique definition at Maranatha. It was completely prohibited at the academy level. Image for a moment going through high school without dating. For most kids, high school was the ancillary part of that equation. Not here. College students were permitted to date. Dating, like most things at Maranatha, was very different from the panting sessions taking place in the back seat of dad’s Oldsmobile Cutlass to the sounds of Styx’s “Babe” all around America that year.
Dating meant visiting the “dating parlor,” a supervised, dedicated room on the ground floor of the “main building” of Maranatha. The room and its furnishings were as if they had been frozen in time from somewhere in the late eighteen hundreds. There, hormonally overactive college students wearing ties and knee-length skirts were permitted to chat and stare longingly into each other’s eyes while wishing they could do more. Touching was strictly forbidden.
Really serious relationships could lead to you and your significant other riding together on the bus to the required Wednesday night church service over at Calvary Baptist Church where a series on third John (the shortest book in the Bible) was droning on into its sixth month. The school bus had bench seats which meant you might even be able to incidentally touch a girl’s leg with your own. Oh, the thrill of taboo!
None of this was allowed for Doug, though. Doug was a man of color. And that girl across the football field? She was lily white. There was no interracial dating at Maranatha. Apparently, somewhere, in a different version of the Bible than I was raised with (the whole book of Ruth must have been missing), was an obscure verse prohibiting such anathema.
On June 12, 1967 that couple from Virginia had another day in court. The US Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s (and the 15 other states that still banned interracial marriage) law as unconstitutional. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that distinctions drawn according to race were “odious to a free people” and were subject to “the most rigid scrutiny” under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Virginia law, the Court found, had no legitimate purpose “independent of invidious racial discrimination.”
Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose opinions I read many, many times in my years in law school wrote, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”
The couple? Mildred and Richard Loving. And thus, today is Loving Day.
After graduating from Maranatha Doug and Pamela eventually married. I recently had the great pleasure of meeting their twin sons who are extremely talented musicians and songwriters. Their forbidden love blossomed. Doug’s ethnicity? He’s Hawaiian. Y’know, the 50th state in the union. His skin is of similar hue to my Greek skin. His blood? The exact same red.
I write today under the cloud of shame that looms heavy, wet and dark over the country after we all have viewed once again in stark terms just how little ground we have forged since Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967). Somehow a knee on the neck depriving air to George Floyd enunciates a perfect metaphor for the malignant and deadly scourge of racism.
But today. Today is Loving Day.