Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Good

richard-and-mildred-lovingIt’s not generally a very wise thing to do, but I entered into a little dispute on Facebook a little while ago. It was about Mildred and Richard Loving of Virginia. A friend shared a discussion thread which was mostly very critical of the way that the Lovings are portrayed in their recent namesake movie. The Lovings’ marriage was illegal in 1950’s Virginia because Mildred was a woman of color and Richard was white. They knew this, so a pregnant, 19-year-old Mildred and 25-year-old Richard traveled to Washington, D.C. to be married. But this didn’t help them when it came to state law: marrying out-of-state to avoid Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, then returning to live as husband and wife, was also illegal.

The young man who initiated the Facebook thread (I won’t name names here, since this piece is only about the ideas expressed) invited a discussion of this fact stated in Mildred Loving’s 2008 obituary in Legacy.com:  “Mildred Jeter was 11 when she and 17-year-old Richard began courting“. My friend who shared the thread, an African-American scholar, was also particularly concerned with another aspect of this story, as many others were: Mildred identified herself at the time of her marriage and for the rest of her life as ‘Indian’, not ‘Black’ or ‘Negro’.

The outrage generated by the very young age of Mildred at the beginning of their relationship resulted in the longest string of angry and shocked responses in the thread. One person wrote ‘Look…are we honestly gonna sit here and act like this white man didn’t see a vulnerable young girl and prey on her specifically because she was too young to know better and too Black for anyone to care otherwise? Like come on y’all. This is gross.‘; ‘Why are we pivoting away from it just being predatory behavior for 17yr old young adults to be romantically interested in 11yr old children?; and ‘He was a fucking child molester. It’s starting to make sense to me of why they were allowed to marry…’

Some took the trouble to establish essential facts before passing judgment, asking such important questions as: ‘I’m trying to understand. Do we know if they had sex when she was a child?’ One person quickly responded ‘Does that matter? He began courting her with those intentions at 11, when most girls have yet to even start puberty. He was grooming her, so it doesn’t matter whether he touched her or not, give the psychological implications.’ An even more excitable person cited the marriage itself as evidence that Richard’s interest in Mildred was sexual from the very beginning. And when a particularly fair-minded young man asked people to pause and consider whether the assumption was correct that the ‘courting’ referred to by the obituary necessarily implied sexual interest, such as the way we use the term ‘dating’ today, he was soon accused of  ‘excus[ing] this predatory behavior’ and even lumped in with ‘rape deniers and apologists‘.

But the issue of Mildred’s denying her black ancestry (which, according to the sources I’ve read did exist, however much she denied or downplayed it) generated the most hurt and personal anger: ‘…Mildred Loving was extremely anti-black. Her entire argument was that she was Native American Not black and she never self-identified as black.‘ and from the initiator of the post: ‘…this film looks like and all the press surrounding it has undoubtedly been “post-racial”, white partner fetishist, anti-black trash.’

As I read this thread, I became more and more upset, and more and more defensive of the Lovings. I responded, impetuously, to my friend who shared the thread on Facebook:

This thread is awful. The character assassination of these two is unconscionable, especially given the fact that they did so much to give us freedoms we now take so much for granted, and because they are not here to defend themselves. If the obituary is correct in that they started dating [here, I made the same initial mistake as many others by conflating ‘courting’ with ‘dating’] when Mildred was very young, that was another time and place when early dating and marriage was both socially and legally acceptable, and we have no evidence that they had sex before the age of consent at the time. It’s unjust to impose our current laws and standards on them and to pretend we know whatever else was going on. She professed love for him for the rest of her life, and this is evidence that she did not feel that he abused or took advantage of her in any way. In this case, I look to Mildred for the evidence: she, the woman, gets to tell us whether she was sexually abused or harassed. The other issue is Mildred’s self-identification as a Native American. We can assume, to satisfy our own self-righteous feelings, that her motives were ‘anti-black’, and again, it’s an assumption we should be careful in making since she’s not here to ask. But if her grandson is right, she had more Native American ancestors than black ones, so identifying herself as a Native American would make sense. Would she be ‘anti-Native American’, then, if she identified as black, rejecting her predominantly Native American ancestry? The people in this thread are setting her up, in a case of identity politics gone awry, for failure no matter what. Perhaps she identified more with her Native American ancestry, perhaps her chosen self-identity was a method of survival in a society that so oppressed black people, perhaps she thought she was more likely to be able to share a life with Richard if she was Native American rather than black. Again, we can only guess. This thread is one of the most unjust, unfair, intellectually dishonest, anti-woman, anti-Native American, and I argue anti-black verbal-character-lynchings I’ve read in a long time.

Why did I (and do) feel so defensive towards the Lovings? My closing sentence went over the top, I suppose. But I think my instinctive reaction was so strong because I’ve admired them and been fascinated by them for so long. I took an avid interest in civil rights history in the sixth grade and this interest has never left me. I’m a bit of a romantic and an optimist, and it’s always been heroes such as the Lovings and other civil rights activists and leaders who have redeemed the human race for me since so many have acted cruelly and unjustly throughout history. But part of my reaction against so many of the things said in this post was the blind ingratitude and self-righteousness I perceived, as I do in so many similar discussions. There’s a distinct and I believe worrying trend of reconsidering all of our social heroes in light of their flaws and to take them down a peg or two, even to the point of destroying their historical reputations. With the exception of a particularly honest few, who also defended the Lovings on consideration of the circumstances and social pressures of their time, so many were ready and even eager to insist that because the Lovings were not perfect, we have the right to assume the worst about their motives and their characters, and therefore, to denigrate their efforts.

I was particularly interested in this response, I’ll call the writer S: ‘It is time that the reality of the lives of this seminal and historical case comes to light. Incidentally, Mildred also did not consider herself Black and did not want too much to do with Black people. I think we need to separate the legal aspects of this case from the personal lives of these people though, because it was critical in overturning the laws of miscegenation and was not just about white men being able to have their way with women of color. It was also critical for protecting Black men in mixed race marriages.‘ I think she’s right that the ‘incidents’ of the case, the details of the personal lives of the people involved, don’t really impact the historical importance of the Supreme Court’s decision in the lives of so many Americans at the time and for the future of the country. The Court’s decision rejected the underlying presumption of anti-miscegenation laws, that ‘blood’ can be ‘corrupted’ by marrying a person of another race, and it more firmly established the American ideal of marriage as a free and equal partnership between two free people, leading to the legalization of gay marriage half a century later. As Justice Earl Warren wrote in his decision in Loving vs. Virginia, ‘The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.’

Yet, by the way, ‘Loving’ the movie, which I thought was beautifully done, is all about the people involved in the case. So while I agree with S’s point that the importance of the case doesn’t hinge on the details of their lives, it’s also true that the movie isn’t about many of the details discussed in the thread, either. It’s not about the wider reality of a rural, impoverished, labor-intensive society in which work and starting a family were preoccupations from an early age, so that courting likewise started very early. It’s not about the myriad social pressures on Mildred that likely caused her to deny or de-emphasize her blackness in a time and place where being black meant she couldn’t have the life she wanted. It’s about the personal experience of Mildred and Richard of loving one another, and how this drove them to sustain a relationship for so many years despite public prejudice and opposition; to marry anyway; and then to become involved in a series of major court cases that so disrupted the peaceful life they desired so much. That’s why the movie is simply called ‘Loving’.

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, June 12, 1967, by Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, June 12, 1967, by Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In doing research for this piece, I was struck again by the number of photos in which Richard is supported by Mildred, sometimes leaning an arm across her shoulder, sometimes laying his head on her lap. After all, the fight for their rights began with Mildred, who wrote of their plight to Robert Kennedy, which in turn gained the attention of the ACLU who took the case, and she was the driving force behind their continued fight. Richard’s leaning on Mildred also reminds me of the way we’re all held up by others. That’s true for all the people in the Facebook discussion thread, myself, for all Americans: we discuss these problematic issues from a relatively safe place because we’re raised up on the shoulders of so many giants. We have free speech rights, the right to marry who we love, the right to cohabitate freely with partners if marriage isn’t our thing, and so on, because of people like the Lovings. Thanks to them and others like them, we will never be arrested for marrying a person of the wrong race or sex, or for drinking from the wrong fountain, or for denying that we can be owned by another person. For the latter two, I myself would never have been arrested for those things in the United States, due to an unfair privilege I would have enjoyed by accident of birth. But there are other things I would have been arrested for at one time: for voting, for leaving an abusive relationship, or for trying to control my own reproduction.

And why do we get to take it for granted that we can talk and live relatively freely? Well, it’s because people like Mildred and Richard had the moral imagination to make a great leap beyond the mores, the legal strictures, the personal biases and learned behaviors of their time and in their own lives. I still love the Lovings, flaws and all, because I think they’re basically good people, and that’s what enabled them to become moral heroes. I think of a hero not as a perfect being, but one who does that rare and exceedingly difficult thing: not only transcend the time they’re in, but themselves in some important and essential way. In the attempt to see the world and our history honestly, it’s not necessary or desirable to whitewash our heroes or the complexity of the issues they face, as many of the arguers in this thread pointed out. But it’s also not necessary to tear them down as persons or hold their legacies hostage to the moral strictures of our time, moral strictures that their ideas and efforts helped us form in the first place.

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Sources and inspiration:

Coleman, Arica L. ‘What You Didn’t Know About Loving v. Virginia‘. June 10, 2016, Time.com

Loving v. Virginia‘, Supreme Court decision No. 395, Argued: April 10, 1967, Decided: June 12, 1967. Via Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute

Loving v. Virginia‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Martin, Douglas. ‘Mildred Loving, Who Battled Ban on Mixed-Race Marriage, Dies at 68‘. May 6, 2008, The New York Times

Mildred Loving Obituary‘. 2008, from Legacy.com

One thought on “Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Good

  1. Pingback: New Podcast Episode: Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Good | Ordinary Philosophy

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