On this dayMay 05, 1943

To Prevent Interracial Marriage, California Requires That Marriage Licenses Indicate Race

On May 5, 1943, a new law went into effect in California, requiring that all marriage licenses indicate the race of the parties to be married. This law, passed unanimously by the all-white, all-male state legislature, was designed to help the state enforce its existing ban on interracial marriage. As California law declared at that time: “no license may be issued authorizing the marriage of a white person with a Negro, mulatto, Mongolian, or member of the Malay race.” Any interracial couple who defied the statute, or any clerk who provided a marriage license to an interracial couple, faced a fine of up to $10,000 or up to 10 years in prison.

“Anti-miscegenation laws,” or laws banning white people from marrying Black and other non-white partners, have a long history in this country—often predating the creation of the U.S. altogether. Northern and Southern states alike passed these laws during the colonial era and throughout the first decades of the nation’s existence; by the start of the Civil War in 1861, 28 states had interracial marriage bans—and seven more passed them before the war’s end in 1865.

Though many northern states repealed their anti-miscegenation laws before or soon after the Civil War, many Southern and Western states responded to the emancipation of millions of enslaved Black people by strengthening their bans. Fears of a weakened racial hierarchy were especially intense in the South, where the bulk of newly freed Black Americans resided, and where white people had long feared that ending slavery would be "the first step to total social equality and unrestricted sex across racial lines." Similarly, many Western states feared that the end of the Civil War would bring an influx of emancipated Black people, and lawmakers saw bans on interracial marriage as one way to reinforce the racial order.

California had banned interracial marriage between white and Black people since first achieving statehood in 1850. Under a law passed that year, “all marriages of whites with negroes or mulattoes are declared to be null and void.” California later expanded the law to also ban white people from marrying people defined as "mongolian" or “malay,” in response to a subsequent increase in immigration from Asia. The state’s white community widely supported the enactment of these policies and the officials who passed them.

The California Supreme Court struck down both the 1943 statute requiring race on marriage licenses and the state's much older ban on interracial marriage on October 1, 1948, in the case of Perez v. Sharp. Nearly 20 years later, on June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided Loving v. Virginia, declaring bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional and striking down such laws in the 16 total states that still had them. This decision overturned the Court’s 1883 decision in Pace v. Alabama, which had upheld the constitutionality of laws banning interracial relations, enabling those laws to persist throughout the country for more than 80 additional years.

Even after the law changed, social and political support for interracial marriage bans lingered. In 2000, Alabama became the last state to repeal its interracial marriage ban when residents voted to remove an anti-miscegenation provision from the state constitution—more than 30 years after Loving made it unenforceable.

Learn more about the history of racial injustice and white Americans’ resistance to civil rights for Black people in EJI’s report, Segregation in America.

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