The first laws criminalizing marriage and sex between whites and blacks were enacted in the colonial era in the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland, which depended economically on unpaid labor such as slavery.
At first, in the 1660s, the first laws in Virginia and Maryland regulating marriage between whites and blacks only pertained to the marriages of whites with black (and mulatto) slaves and indentured servants. In 1664, Maryland enacted a law which criminalized such marriages—the 1681 marriage of Irish-born Nell Butler to an African slave was an early example of the application of this law. Virginia (1691) was the first English colony in North America to pass a law forbidding free blacks and whites to intermarry, followed by Maryland in 1692. This was the first time in American history that a law was invented that restricted access to marriage partners solely on the basis of "race", not class or condition of servitude. Later these laws also spread to colonies in the Thirteen Colonies with fewer slaves and free blacks, such as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Moreover, after the independence of the United States had been established, similar laws were enacted in territories and states which outlawed slavery.
A sizable number of the early indentured servants in the British American colonies were brought over from the Indian subcontinent by the British East India Company. Anti-miscegenation laws discouraging interracial marriage between white Americans and non-whites affected South Asian immigrants as early as the 17th century. For example, a Eurasian daughter born to an Indian father and Irish mother in Maryland in 1680 was classified as a "mulatto" and sold into slavery. Anti-miscegenation laws there continued into the early 20th century. For example, the Bengali revolutionary Tarak Nath Das's white American wife, Mary K. Das, was stripped of her American citizenship for her marriage to an "alien ineligible for citizenship." In 1918, there was considerable controversy in Arizona when an Indian farmer B. K. Singh married the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of his white tenants.
In 1685, the French government issued a special Code Noir restricted to Louisiana, which banned the marriage of Catholics and non-Catholics in that colony. However, interracial cohabitation and interracial sex were never prohibited in French Louisiana (see plaçage). The situation of the children (free or slave) followed the situation of the mother. Under Spanish rule, interracial marriage was possible with parental consent under the age of 25 and without it when the partners were older. In 1806, three years after the U.S. gained control over the state, interracial marriage was once again banned.
It has been argued that the first laws banning all marriage between whites and blacks, enacted in Virginia and Maryland, were a response by the planter elite to the problems they were facing due to the socio-economic dynamics of the plantation system in the Southern colonies. The bans in Virginia and Maryland were established at a time when slavery was not yet fully institutionalized. At the time, most forced laborers on the plantations were indentured servants, and they were mostly European. Some historians have suggested that the at-the-time unprecedented laws banning "interracial" marriage were originally invented by planters as a divide-and-rule tactic after the uprising of European and African indentured servants in cases such as Bacon's Rebellion. According to this theory, the ban on interracial marriage was issued to split up the ethnically mixed, increasingly "mixed-race" labor force into "whites," who were given their freedom, and "blacks," who were later treated as slaves rather than as indentured servants. By outlawing "interracial" marriage, it became possible to keep these two new groups separated and prevent a new rebellion.
In 1776, seven out of the Thirteen Colonies that declared their independence enforced laws against interracial marriage. Although slavery was gradually abolished in the North after independence, this at first had little impact on the enforcement of anti-miscegenation laws. An exception was Pennsylvania, which repealed its anti-miscegenation law in 1780, together with some of the other restrictions placed on free blacks, when it enacted a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in the state.
For the radical abolitionists who organized to oppose slavery in the 1830s, laws banning interracial marriage embodied the same racial prejudice that they saw at the root of slavery. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison took aim at Massachusetts' legal ban on interracial marriage as early as 1831. Anti-abolitionists defended the measure as necessary to prevent racial amalgamation and to maintain the Bay State's proper racial and moral order. Abolitionists, however, objected that the law, because it "distinguished between 'citizens on account of complexion,'" violated the broad egalitarian tenets of Christianity and republicanism as well as the state constitution's promise of equality. Beginning in the late 1830s, abolitionists began a several-year petition campaign that prompted the legislature to repeal the measure in 1843. Their efforts—both tactically and intellectually—constituted a foundational moment in the era's burgeoning minority-rights politics, which would continue to expand into the twentieth century.
As the US expanded, however, all the new slave states as well as many new free states such as Illinois and California enacted such laws.
Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama legalized interracial marriage for some years during the Reconstruction period. Anti-miscegenation laws rested unenforced, were overturned by courts or repealed by the state government (in Arkansas and Louisiana). However, after white Democrats took power in the South during "Redemption", anti-miscegenation laws were re-enacted and once more enforced, and in addition Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South which also enforced other forms of racial segregation. In Florida, the new Constitution of 1888 prohibited marriage between "a white person and a person of negro descent" (Article XVI, Section 24).
A number of northern and western states permanently repealed their anti-miscegenation laws during the 19th century. This, however, did little to halt anti-miscegenation sentiments in the rest of the country. Newly established western states continued to enact laws banning interracial marriage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1913 and 1948, 30 out of the then 48 states enforced anti-miscegenation laws. Only Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia never enacted them.
At least three proposed constitutional amendments intended to bar interracial marriage in the United States were introduced in Congress.
In 1871, Representative Andrew King (Democrat of Missouri) was the first politician in Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to make interracial marriage illegal nationwide. King proposed this amendment because he predicted (correctly, as the case of Loving v. Virginia later demonstrated) that the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868 to give equal civil rights to the emancipated ex-slaves (the Freedmen) as part of the process of Reconstruction, would render laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional.
In December 1912 and January 1913, Representative Seaborn Roddenbery (Democrat of Georgia) again introduced a proposal in the United States House of Representatives to insert a prohibition of miscegenation into the US Constitution and thus create a nationwide ban on interracial marriage. According to the wording of the proposed amendment, "Intermarriage between negros or persons of color and Caucasians... within the United States... is forever prohibited." Roddenbery's proposal was more severe because it defined the racial boundary between whites and "persons of color" by applying the one-drop rule. In his proposed amendment, anyone with "any trace of African or Negro blood" was banned from marrying a white spouse.
Roddenbery's proposed amendment was also a direct reaction to African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson's marriages to white women, first to Etta Duryea and then to Lucille Cameron. In 1908, Johnson had become the first black boxing world champion, having beaten Tommy Burns. After his victory, the search was on for a white boxer, a "Great White Hope", to beat Johnson. Those hopes were dashed in 1910, when Johnson beat former world champion Jim Jeffries. This victory ignited race riots all over America as frustrated whites attacked celebrating African Americans. Johnson's marriages to and affairs with white women further infuriated white Americans. In his speech introducing his bill before the United States Congress, Roddenbery compared the marriage of Johnson and Cameron to the enslavement of white women, and warned of future civil war that would ensue if interracial marriage was not made illegal nationwide:
No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of southern slavery, possessed such villainious character and such atrocious qualities as the provision of the laws of Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain. [applause]. Gentleman, I offer this resolution ... that the States of the Union may have an opportunity to ratifty it. ...
Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government. It is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania.
Spurred on by Roddenbery's introduction of the anti-miscegenation amendment, politicians in many of the 19 states lacking anti-miscegenation laws proposed their enactment. However, Wyoming in 1913 was the only state lacking such a law that enacted one. Also in 1913, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which had abolished its anti-miscegenation law in 1843, enacted a measure (not repealed until 2008) that prevented couples who could not marry in their home state from marrying in Massachusetts.
In 1928, Senator Coleman Blease (Democrat of South Carolina) proposed an amendment that went beyond the previous ones, requiring that Congress set a punishment for interracial couples attempting to get married and for people officiating an interracial marriage. This amendment was also never enacted.
The constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1883 case Pace v. Alabama (106 U.S. 583). The Supreme Court ruled that the Alabama anti-miscegenation statute did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. According to the court, both races were treated equally, because whites and blacks were punished in equal measure for breaking the law against interracial marriage and interracial sex. This judgment was overturned in 1967 in the Loving v. Virginia case, where the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional.
The constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws only began to be widely called into question after World War II. In 1948, the California Supreme Court in Perez v. Sharp ruled that the Californian anti-miscegenation statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and was therefore unconstitutional. This was the first time since Reconstruction that a state court declared an anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional, and California was the first state since Ohio in 1887 to repeal its anti-miscegenation law.
As a result, during the 1950s, anti-miscegenation laws were repealed or overturned in state after state, except in the South. Nonetheless, in the 1950s, the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws was still a controversial issue in the U.S., even among supporters of racial integration.
In 1958, the political theorist Hannah Arendt, an emigre from Nazi Germany, wrote in an essay in response to the Little Rock Crisis, the Civil Rights struggle for the racial integration of public schools which took place in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, that anti-miscegenation laws were an even deeper injustice than the racial segregation of public schools. The free choice of a spouse, she argued in Reflections on Little Rock, was "an elementary human right": "Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs." Arendt was severely criticized by fellow liberals, who feared that her essay would arouse the racist fears common among whites and thus hinder the struggle of African Americans for civil rights and racial integration. Commenting on the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka against de jure racial segregation in education, Arendt argued that anti-miscegenation laws were more basic to racial segregation than racial segregation in education.
Arendt's analysis of the centrality of laws against interracial marriage to white supremacy echoed the conclusions of Gunnar Myrdal. In his essay Social Trends in America and Strategic Approaches to the Negro Problem (1948), Myrdal ranked the social areas where restrictions were imposed by Southern whites on the freedom of African-Americans through racial segregation from the least to the most important: jobs, courts and police, politics, basic public facilities, "social equality" including dancing and handshaking, and most importantly, marriage. This ranking was indeed reflective of the way in which the barriers against desegregation fell under the pressure of the protests of the emerging Civil Rights movement. First, legal segregation in the army, in education and in basic public services fell, then restrictions on the voting rights of African-Americans were lifted. These victories were ensured by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the bans on interracial marriage were the last to go, in 1967.
Most white Americans in the 1950s were opposed to interracial marriage and did not see laws banning interracial marriage as an affront to the principles of American democracy. A 1958 Gallup poll showed that 94 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. However, attitudes towards bans on interracial marriage quickly changed in the 1960s.
By the 1960s, civil rights organizations were helping interracial couples who were being penalized for their relationships to take their cases to the Supreme Court. Since Pace v. Alabama, the court had declined to make a judgment in such cases. But in 1964, the Warren Court decided to issue a ruling in the case of an interracial couple from Florida who had been convicted because they had cohabited. In McLaughlin v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled that the Florida state law which prohibited cohabitation between whites and non-whites was unconstitutional and based solely on a policy of racial discrimination. However, the court did not rule on Florida's ban on marriage between whites and non-whites, despite the appeal of the plaintiffs to do so and the argument made by the state of Florida that its ban on cohabitation between whites and blacks was ancillary to its ban on marriage between whites and blacks. However, in 1967, the court did decide to rule on the remaining anti-miscegenation laws when it was presented with the case of Loving v. Virginia.
All bans on interracial marriage were lifted only after an interracial couple from Virginia, Richard and Mildred Loving, began a legal battle in 1963 for the repeal of the anti-miscegenation law which prevented them from living as a couple in their home state of Virginia. The Lovings were supported by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Japanese American Citizens League and a coalition of Catholic bishops.
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving had married in Washington, D.C. to evade Virginia's anti-miscegenation law (the Racial Integrity Act). Having returned to Virginia, they were arrested in their bedroom for living together as an interracial couple. The judge suspended their sentence on the condition that the Lovings leave Virginia and not return for 25 years. In 1963, the Lovings, who had moved to Washington, D.C, decided to appeal this judgment. In 1965, Virginia trial court Judge Leon Bazile, who heard their original case, refused to reconsider his decision. Instead, he defended racial segregation, writing:
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix."
The Lovings then took their case to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which invalidated the original sentence but upheld the state's Racial Integrity Act. Finally, the Lovings turned to the U.S Supreme Court. The court, which had previously avoided taking miscegenation cases, agreed to hear an appeal. In 1967, 84 years after Pace v. Alabama in 1883, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Loving v. Virginia that:
"Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."
The Supreme Court condemned Virginia's anti-miscegenation law as "designed to maintain White supremacy".
In 1967, 17 Southern states (all the former slave states plus Oklahoma) still enforced laws prohibiting marriage between whites and non-whites. Maryland repealed its law in response to the start of the proceedings at the Supreme Court. After the ruling of the Supreme Court, the remaining laws were no longer enforceable. Nonetheless, it took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until 2000 to amend their states' constitutions to remove language prohibiting miscegenation. In the respective referendums, 62% of voters in South Carolina and 59% of voters in Alabama voted to make the amendments. In Alabama nearly 526,000 people voted against the amendment, including a majority of voters in some rural counties.
In 2009, Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Robert, Louisiana, refused to officiate a civil wedding for an interracial couple. A nearby justice of the peace, on Bardwell's referral, officiated the wedding; the interracial couple sued Keith Bardwell and his wife Beth Bardwell in federal court. After facing wide criticism for his actions, including from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Bardwell resigned on November 3, 2009. See 2009 Louisiana interracial marriage incident.