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The Loving Case

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Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Longshore Union Leader Harry Bridges, 57, San Francisco, and his Japanese-American financee, Noriko Sawada, 32, are shown as they are refused a Reno marriage license on grounds that whites and asians cannot intermarry by Nevada law.

You may have seen the film about Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple who ended up suing for the right to marry. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states couldn’t bar interracial marriage. With the fiftieth anniversary of that decision upon us, let’s look at Nevada’s version of it.

Harry Bridges was a controversial figure. He led the longshoremen’s union, based in San Francisco. He had belonged to the communist party, and the CIO expelled his union over that and other connections. But in 1959 he had made the connection of a lifetime with Noriko Sawada, a legal secretary. They wanted to get married. They came to Reno to do it.

And they ran into a problem. The word miscegenation was created during the Civil War to describe racial intermarriage. Nevada’s territorial legislature had passed a law against it in 1861. The new state followed suit at the 1865 legislature. There were challenges and debates over the years, but the law stayed intact.

In 1948, the California supreme court held that state’s miscegenation statute to be unconstitutional. Pressure was building on civil rights. Now, we tend to think of that as meaning African American civil rights, but other groups were leading their own civil rights movements, too. The miscegenation statute originally targeted white and black, but it kept people of other colors from wedding, too.

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That included the Australian-born Bridges and his American-born fiancé of Japanese ancestry. On December 8, 1958, they flew into Reno from San Francisco and the next morning went to the Washoe County Courthouse. Lawyers already had warned them. As Sawada said when asked, “Are you black, white, brown, red or yellow?” she replied, “Under those categories, I must be yellow.” Attorney Sam Frankovich told the county clerk, Harry Brown, they should be able to get married. The identical statute had, after all, been held unconstitutional in California. But Brown said that ruling didn’t affect Nevada.

So Frankovich went to a state court. Judge Taylor Wines had been appointed to district court for Elko County in 1947 and heard this case in Reno. After oral arguments, Wines ordered a recess. When Wines came back, he told the attorneys he “saw no evil which would justify the state interfering with the freedom of an individual to marry.” The crowd in the courtroom applauded. Wines told Frankovich to prepare an order. He did, and Wines signed it. Bridges and Sawada returned to the courthouse, and Brown himself tended to the license, which cost five dollars. Then Justice of the Peace William Beemer performed their wedding.

But the fight wasn’t over. The county appealed the decision. In turns, Wines wrote an order explaining that the miscegenation law violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article One of the Nevada Constitution, which guarantees equality and our inalienable rights. But the Nevada legislature solved the problem. It passed a bill amending the original law to allow people of different races to live together after marriage. The legislature overwhelmingly approved and Governor Grant Sawyer signed it into law, eight years before the Loving decision.

Taylor Wines was related to a legendary Nevada family. Four generations of the Wines-Segerblom family has served in the legislature. Taylor Wines served as a judge for twenty years and made some important decisions. This one involved the most important thing of all: love.