Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Dilemma of Interracial Marriage: The Boston NAACP and the National Equal Rights League, 1912-1927

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Dilemma of Interracial Marriage: The Boston NAACP and the National Equal Rights League, 1912-1927

Article excerpt

Introduction: On July 16, 2008, the headline of a New York Times article trumpeted the proud accomplishment of the denouement of a longstanding era of discrimination in Massachusetts: "A 1913 Law Dies to Better Serve Gay Marriages."3 The so-called "1913 law" in question was the Uniform Marriage Act originally initiated by Massachusetts State Senator Harry Ney Stearns, a Harvard educated lawyer from Cambridge, on March 7, 1913. The law barred out-of-state residents from getting married in Massachusetts if their union was illegal in their home state. In 1913 interracial marriage was banned in thirty states.

In 2006, Attorney General Thomas Reilly insisted that the original 1913 legislation had nothing to do with race. In his brief to the state supreme court, Reilly argued that by enforcing the law and using it to prohibit gay people who lived in other states from attempting to marry in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth was simply respecting other states that banned such unions. Governor Mitt Romney, a strong opponent of same sex marriage, revived the archaic anti-miscegenation law as a means to block couples from travelling to Massachusetts to marry.

Although the law had not been enforced for decades, Romney used his position on same-sex marriage to help launch his failed presidential bids in both 2008 and 2012. He stated famously that "he did not want to make Massachusetts the Las Vegas of same-sex marriage."4 On March 30, 2006, the state Supreme Court agreed with Romney and upheld the application of the law to same sex couples. As a result, although same-sex couples could legally marry in Massachusetts, residents of other states could not.5

Representative Byron Rushing and State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, both African American elected officials representing parts of Boston's South End with large LGBTQ constituencies, led the ensuing fight to repeal the law that quickly came to be seen as a symbol of Massachusetts' little known racist past. It passed in the House 118-35. Deval Patrick, the state's first African American governor, signed the bill that repealed the law on July 3, 2008.

MASSACHUSETTS' UNIFORM MARRIAGE ACT OF 1913

As previously stated, the 1913 law was originally passed to discourage interracial couples from travelling to Massachusetts to marry from states where intermarriage was illegal. But the law did not appear in a vacuum. The state legislature approved the measure shortly after a scandal involving heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson's marriage to Lucille Cameron, who was 18 years old and white. In 1908, Jack Johnson (1878-1946) 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 across the U.S. as frustrated whites attacked celebrating African Americans. Johnson's later marriages to, and many affairs with, white women further infuriated white Americans.6

Efforts to reinvigorate dormant interracial marriage bans had been considered in many northern states in the early 1900s, but immediately took on a new vigor in the wake of Johnson's second marriage. By 1913, half of the 18 states that had lacked anti-miscegenation laws in 1910 had introduced legislation banning interracial marriage.

Massachusetts Attorney General Reilly's comments in 2006 notwithstanding, the struggle over interracial marriage has implications for other oppressed communities and modern day struggles. The fact that Massachusetts' 1913 law against interracial marriage was used to block same-sex marriage in 2004 is remarkable. It lends credibility to those who have long made the connection between the gay rights and the civil rights movements and it links these communities of oppression in a palpable way.

Peggy Pascoe, author of the award-winning study, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making ofRace in America (2010), has pointed out that today, when interracial marriage is legal and common, many Americans are surprised to learn that a vast network of laws once existed to prevent people from marrying outside their race. …

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