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By John Frank April 15, 2008

Obama's more right than he knows

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama recently confronted the issue of equal rights for gays and lesbians with some history about his life.

"I'm the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born," he told

Obama made the remark during a wide-ranging interview about issues affecting the gay, bisexual and transgender community with a Web site for gay and lesbian readers. Obama said his perspective about rights for same-sex couples is shaped by the broader political and historical context of his upbringing.

Such laws were more widepsread than Obama realizes. At the time of his birth Aug. 4, 1961, 22 states banned interracial marriages, not 12.

(For those counting: Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.)

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But it was never an issue for his white American mother and black Kenyan father, who lived in Hawaii. The island state is one of only nine that never declared these marriages illegal.

At one time or another, laws against miscegenation were active in close to 40 states. In 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the bans unconstitutional in the landmark Loving vs. Virginia ruling, 16 states were still enforcing them, said Peter Wallenstein, a Virginia Tech history professor and pre-eminent scholar on the subject.

Wallenstein said that although his number is off, Obama's point is still striking a chord with younger supporters who "can't imagine there was ever a time" when mixed marriages were illegal.

We can't give Obama a straight-up true because his number is way off, but his larger point, that many states prohibited interracial marriage in the early 1960s, is correct.

Our Sources

The Advocate, Obama Talks All Things LGBT with The Advocate, April 10, 2008

Peter Wallenstein, Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage and Law — An American History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, Map of interracial marriage bans

Washington Post, Loving Day Recalls a Time When the Union of a Man And a Woman Was Banned, June 13, 2006

Find Law, Loving vs. Virginia, U.S. Supreme Court, 1967

Byron Curti Martyn, "Racism in the United States: A History of Anti-Miscegenation Legislation and Litigation," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1979

Interview with Peter Wallenstein, Virginia Tech history professor, April 14, 2008

Interview with Ken Tanabe, founder of, April 14, 2008

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