Multnomah County marks Loving Day, June 12, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage

June 12, 2012

Before every June wedding, the bride and groom stop first at Multnomah County. They apply for a marriage license, pay a $60 cash fee, then wait three days, as required by Oregon law. More than 5,780 couples applied for a marriage license last year in Multnomah County, up 500 couples from 2009.

“Most are super-excited,’’said manager Debbi Huff. “A few are joking. They say, ‘If it doesn’t work out, can I get my money back?’ But most? They’re pretty excited. It’s one of those milestones: to come in and apply for your marriage license.’’

Oregon and Washington lead the nation in the percent of marriages that are interracial. But sadly for much of the nation’s history, marrying someone of a different race was forbidden.

Tuesday, June 12 marks the 45th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. the State of Virginia that struck down centuries-old laws against interracial marriage.

The Loving case began in 1958 when Mildred and Richard Loving wed legally in Washington D.C. They were shaken awake in their Virginia home shortly afterward by police who arrested them because Richard was white and Mildred was black. The judge sentenced them each to a year in jail.

The couple agreed to leave Virginia in exchange for their freedom. After years of scraping by away from home and family, they wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help. He linked them to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state of Virginia on the couple's behalf.

On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that it was up to the individual and not the state, to decide to marry someone of a different race. “Loving Day’’ has since become a growing celebration of multiracial unions.

Oregon had its own long history of banning interracial marriage. An 1862 law prohibited marital unions between whites and people who were a quarter black, Chinese or Kanaka (native Hawaiian), according to the Oregon History Project. In 1866, the Legislature banned miscegenation - marriage between members of different racial groups.

That law stood until 1951.

Today, 8.4 percent of U.S. marriages are mixed race, the highest level on record. The percent of interracial marriages rose 20 percent since 2000 to 4.5 million. In addition to the Pacific Northwest states, California, Nevada and Arizona have among the highest rates of intermarriage in the nation.

In 2004, Multnomah County authorized same-sex marriage before the Oregon Supreme Court voided the unions in 2005. In 2008, a new state law authorized domestic partnerships statewide. Couples can file for the partnerships similar to marriage licenses, with 261 in the last year in Multnomah County, down from 368 in 2009.

Because domestic partners do not face the same three-day waiting period they often arrive at the filing office accompanied by friends and family.

“That day is the special moment,’’ Huff said.

The county maintains the record of these unions as public records, which people can research. The records reveal the changes in love and marriage over time. Among the documents: marriage licenses from the 1800s that include the price of the woman’s dowry.

Sources: Multnomah County, Time, Associated Press, Oregon History Project, Loving Day website, “The Rise of Intermarriage” Pew Research Center.