Louisiana Interracial Marriage Incident Has a Positive Aspect
Written by Lewis D. Eigen
In a strange way, Keith Bardwell, the Louisiana Justice of the Peace who refused to perform an interracial marriage started a wondrous chain of events.
For the vast majority of Americans this was a relatively minor story about a Neanderthal, racist Justice of the Peace who allowed his repugnant personal views on interracial marriage to interfere with his legal duties. The Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu, immediately called for his dismissal. The Governor, Bobby Jindal, quickly followed suit. Newspapers, TV and radio stations picked up the story treating the incident as a throwback to the South, decades ago. The story was not even treated as a current public policy issue. There were almost no “talking heads” or commentators taking the justice’s side. No one argued the dangers of interracial marriage, the problems for the children, the “mongrelization” of the white race. Had this same even occurred 50 years ago, there would have been a nationwide debate about race mixing.In 1959, there was no Civil Rights Act in America. Interracial marriage was actually illegal in many states. A couple could both be jailed as felons if they married across the racial barrier. Southern politicians regularly railed against the destruction of the white race that would come if such intermarriage were allowed. States Rights allowed each state to make this decision for themselves. While racial intermarriage was not illegal in Northern and Western states, it was heavily discouraged. And few politicians, even in the North would publicly advocate racial intermarriage or defend the practice.Because of the lack of civil rights laws, the interracial couple really did have a difficult time. They could net eat in many restaurants, stay in many hotels. In many areas of the nation, landlords would refuse to rent an apartment to an interracial couple. That couple had a cross to bear that made advice against interracial marriage a self fulfilling prophesy.
In the famous Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the key clue that enabled the great detective to solve the case was what did not happen. It was the dog that didn’t bark. And the key to analyzing the progress of half a century was what did not happen—especially locally. The rural Louisiana neighbors of the couple did not threaten them or even castigate them publicly as would have happened in 1959. The other public officials did not support the Justice of the Peace and they did not rail against the threat to the “American way of life.” In fact, the neighbors were very supportive and sympathetic, and another Justice of the Peace married the couple rapidly. There were no editorials against the couple, Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay. They did not receive a slew of hate mail. No crosses were burned on their lawn as was then common. They were not physically assaulted as interracial couples often were in the 1959 era. And the FBI was not supportive of the local Justice of the Peace and the Southern racist establishment as the 1959 J. Edgar Hoover FBI was. None of these dogs barked in 2009.
It is hard for people under the age of 50 to appreciate how far we have come as a nation with our racial problem. Fortunately, things are so much better today that the NAACP and other Civil Rights organizations have had to reinvent their missions and deal with the racist attitudes that still exist rather than the legally sanctioned racism and discrimination of earlier decades.
A little over 50 years ago, I and my fiancée presented ourselves at the New York City Hall. We were to be married on the weekend, and we needed to obtain our marriage license. When we arrived, we were given the application forms. We were quite surprised to see that the form asked us each for our “Color”—the then euphemism for race. Now York State was one of the the most liberal of the states at the time, and New York City, the most liberal jurisdiction in the state. We were a little surprised at the question. Of what business was it of the city of New York’s what race marriage license applicants were? We decided that we would not answer that question. When we presented the forms to the clerk, he pointed out that we had not filled out the entire form. Hence he could not issue the license. At this point we decided to make our own small protest, and for “color”, I wrote “tan” and my fiancée wrote “pink.” The clerk was clearly annoyed. “There is no such thing as tan and pink people,” he challenged.
I replied, “There are no instructions as to how to determine color, and I look at my suntanned skin and tan is as close as I can come.” I pointed to my arm. “Is my skin not tan?”
“Don’t be a wise ass. You know color means race,” he told us. “How do we know? If the city of New York wanted to know our race, and had a right to ask, I assume that they would have said “race” on the form. They didn’t, so they must mean something else. Color it says and we did our best to provide our colors. Do we have to call our attorney to come down for a legal opinion?” The clerk had enough of us, and told us to wait, and he would get the supervisor. We waited for about 5 minutes and there were people lining up behind us. We could see through the class partition the clerk talking to two other men, and finally a third—much better dressed–joined them. After a minute or so, he came out and introduced himself. He was the Chief Clerk of the City of New York. He would handle us. He explained politely but firmly, “We don’t make the rules or the forms; we just have to enforce whatever exists. I have no idea exactly what the word color means in this context, but I do know that I can only accept: White, Black, Brown, Red and Yellow. You have to choose one of those to get a license.”
I replied, “But how am I supposed to tell? My family came from the Ukraine. There were a lot of white people there but the Mongols invaded and dominated the area for many years. They raped the women, and so I assume that my ancestors had a lot of yellow blood in them. And there is a rumor in our family that my great grandmother on the other side of the family was married to a man who was part American Indian. So that is white, yellow and red. How do I know which is the dominant one without medical tests. I don’t want to commit perjury and fill out a single answer that I know is probably in error?”
The Chief Clerk smiled and motioned us to follow him to his private office. When we arrived, he offered us a seat and spoke from behind his large desk. “You are a terrific couple. I understand what you are trying to do, and frankly, I think you are quite right. I have been telling that to the officials here for several years. The courts would not allow us to ask for people’s race in a marriage application, and there are many people who are hung up over interracial marriage. The Southerners call New York the national capital of race degeneration. Our politicians want to know what percentage of marriages in New York City were interracial. So someone came up with the lame excuse of asking for the color of the people so that we could do medical statistics to further the health of the city. Now that is a pretty lame argument for doing something that we should not be doing.”
We were surprised if not shocked. We actually seem to have found an ally. He then gave us our choices. “You can get your lawyer, if you don’t have one, the ACLU has been anxious to litigate this issue, and I am sure they would take the case. And you will probably win. But it will take you a couple of months. And that would be a worthy goal for which you might postpone your wedding. However, I’m going to share something with you. The politicians have already decided to change the form and not ask for color any longer. The new forms are being printed right now, and the new regulations will go into effect in about two months.”
“So you mean that this is going form is going to change no matter what we do?” my fiancée asked.
“Can we get married in the meanwhile?, she asked. We had a New York Judge scheduled to perform the ceremony and a bunch of guests who were expecting a wedding on Sunday at a nice resteraunt in town. As young idealists, we wanted to stand up for a principle, but if the battle was really won already, why delay the nuptials? The Chief Clerk explained that we would have to now fill in the form with one of the five official authorized human colors, and the license could be instantly granted.
I was reluctant to sign my name to such a racist form, but one of us—I don’t remember who—came up with a compromise solution. We would use the form we had already filled out and signed. We would cross out with a single line the “Tan” and “Pink” and write in over them “White”. That way, we would at least have a memento of our protest.
We made the “corrections” on the form. The marriage license was dutifully issued, we were married on Sunday, and several months later, as the Chief Clerk had indicated, the forms were changed and that was the last time that New York City felt compelled to track interracial marriages.
However, the Southern states were still harassing and assaulting those who would attempt an interracial marriage and jailing others. It would take almost a decade for the US Supreme Court to outlaw bans on interracial marriages in 1967. But the Supreme Court might change the law, but it could not change the attitude and social behavior of most Americans who still opposed interracial marriage by a margin 72 percent to only 18 percent in favor. That was still better than the 90 percent of Americans who opposed interracial marriage in 1948 when the Supreme Court of California required that those interracial couples who wished, had the right to marry. By 1994 American opinion was split about 50-50. However, two years ago in 2007, the Gallup Poll found that only 23 percent of Americans were opposed to interracial marriage. The decrease in American racist attitudes toward intermarriage has been dramatically precipitous. The now small minority in opposition are as they have qlways been, older and less educated. The attitude change has been affected by many sociological, psychological and political factors. However, one of the most important factors has been death!. The older people with the most racist attitudes have been dying off. The younger Americans, in overwhelming proportions, are much less prejudiced than their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. things were so different 50 years ago that it was the Democratic Party who would not advocate any Civil Rights Legislation. ALL the Southern Congressmen and Senators were Democrats. The Blacks and other monirities looked to the Republican Party for significantpressure for Civil Rights and better treatment for Afrincan Americans. The Democrats were the party of teh religious right in those days and accused the “Godless Republicans” of being out of touch with the aspirations of religious people. Almost all the rabid racists in America were then Democrats,
When Lyndon Johnson acended to the Presidency, he not only turned the Democratic Party around on race but with Republican help, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964–the only civil right bill that the Sourhtern Democrats had not blocked since the artermath of the Civil War. The politics of America flip-floped. The Blacks and other monorities switched their alegiance to teh Democratic party and the Republicans in a desperate and incredibly successful switch appealed to the South by opposing racial progress and justice. Within a decade the flip flop was complete. Most rabid racists in America either became Republicans or joined fringe and radical right parties. But althought the parties flip flopped, the new Republicans were not and are not ithe rabid racists that so many Democrats had been in the past. Racial progress was made despite much Republican opposition to the very principles that the founders of their party–maintained since Recinstruction and ended after 1964.
Racism is by no means eliminated in America, and the vestige of the effects of 2 racist centuries will not be eradicated any time soon. However, perhaps we will not require another half century to make substantial progress in the future. The fact of the racist non barking about the Louisiana incident and the reaction of most Americans—their leaders and institutions—bodes well for the future especially when juxtaposed against the progress of the last half century.
Entry filed under: History, Politics. Tags: attitudes, Beth Humphrey, Democrats, discrimination, interracial marriage, Keith Bardwell, law, Louisiana, marriage, New York City, Politics, racism, Republicans, rights, Terence McKay.