'Loving' Turns 40

It was against the law for blacks and whites to marry in several states for many years. That changed 40 years ago, with the landmark Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage nationwide. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen discuss their book "Love in Black and White" and their personal experience as an interracial couple.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to a very different legal issue. It's hard to believe that 40 years ago, it was still against the law for blacks and whites to marry in some U.S. states. All that changed on this day in 1967 with the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage in every state.

Today, mixed-race couples are more common, but only seven percent of all American marriages are interracial.

Joining me here in the studio to talk about their experience are Bill Cohen and Janet Langhart Cohen. William Cohen is a former Republican senator from Maine, and he was secretary of defense under President Clinton. Janet is a former model and pioneering television journalist. They co-authored a book about their marriage, "Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance." Thank you both of being here.

Ms. JANET LANGHART COHEN (Co-Author, "Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance"): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. WILLIAM COHEN (Co-Author, "Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance"; Former Republican Senator, Maine): Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now you're both public figures, but you are delving into some rather personal territory here. And Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask, why did you want to write this book?

Mr. COHEN: Well, Janet started it all. She wrote a book throughout her life and growing up from the projects in Indiana to the Pentagon. And it was a remarkable story called "From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas," and I thought that it was such a good book that - were there parallels in our lives that we could talk about, not so much what happened after we became married or - but rather what happened to us before we were married. What was her life like growing up in a racist society in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the Klan had its headquarters? What is it like for me to grew up in Bangor, Maine, where anti-Semitism was quite prominent?

So we each had steps to overcome, she much higher than I to climb. But I thought it would be an interest story to talk about how we were able to meet in this country coming from different backgrounds, races, religions, cultures, and yet meet, be able to marry - thanks to the Supreme Court decision - and live a wonderful life in this great country.

MARTIN: Janet, are there ways in which, as a mixed couple, you still feel conspicuous or vulnerable? That you stand out?

Ms. COHEN: No, not the way you would think or the way I would have thought, say 40 years ago, if I were to have gotten married then before the Supreme Court ruling. America has grown, and the story we tell in "Love in Black and White" is a love story. It's not only a love story between Bill and me, but it's a love story between us and our country. We both were growing up in the, and say in the shadow of World War II. He was born in 1940 and I in 1941. So to think that in my lifetime, within the last 40 years, we would have been outlaws, Bill and me, if we had decided to get married earlier in our lives…

Mr. COHEN: Well, as a matter of fact just seven years before we met, it would have been illegal.

Ms. COHEN: Yes.

Mr. COHEN: So in 1967. So seven years later, we first met.

MARTIN: How did you meet?

Mr. COHEN: Janet was hosting a television show in Boston. I was passing through. I went on the show to get interviewed at that time, but saw this extraordinary individual - a combination of the beauty, to be sure, but brains. And I said, wow, what a package. And I…

MARTIN: You remember it?

Mr. COHEN: Oh I do. Yeah, I…

MARTIN: Like that distinctly? And as I recall this story in your book, you were kind of a mess that day. You were actually, like, sick as a dog and fairly disgusting. Did you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Yes, I was.

MARTIN: …notice him?

Ms. COHEN: I did. He was standing at the water fountain just outside of the TV studio where I worked.

MARTIN: Oh great, sneezing outside the water fountain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COHEN: But he had a handkerchief.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COHEN: And I was walking by him into the studio, and he turned to look at me and I took pity on him because he had this handkerchief and he was blowing his nose, but what I saw were his glistening Irish blue eyes, and he was looking right at me. And I would like to think it was love at first sight, but it was pity at first sight because he was so sick.

But we became friends because in those days when women did television, we were relegated the women to the home ec stuff - cooking and babies and celebrity. And at that time, as you well know, Michel, Watergate was going on in 1974. This is the year we met. And I wanted to do more substantive interviews. I didn't want to be the woman in the kitchen or the black woman in the kitchen. I wanted to talk about those issues. And Andrew Young was a friend of mine…

MARTIN: Who was a member of Congress at that time.

Ms. COHEN: At that time. And I'd met Andy during the days of the civil rights movement in Chicago with Dr. King. You know, he was Dr. King's lieutenant. And Andy had become a congressman. And when I saw Andy, I said, Andy, help me. Help me with these interviews. You know what's going on in Washington. He said, well, I'll never get up to Boston, but there's a colleague of mine who does who has to pass through Boston to go his home state of Maine, Bill Cohen. He can help you.

MARTIN: Which is interesting, because you're of different political parties. You're a Republican…

Mr. COHEN: Right. We have a mixed marriage. We do. Janet's a hardcore Democrat.

MARTIN: Well I'm just talking (unintelligible).

Ms. COHEN: (unintelligible). I'm hearing Andy Young.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, Andy.

MARTIN: What I was just saying is that it's just interesting now, because Washington is perceived as just a polarized environment that he thought highly enough of you to recommend you as a - I don't know, tutor is not quite the right word, but as a source for…

Ms. COHEN: Mentor. But Bill's is a different kind of Republican. Then and now, as you remember, Michel, you're probably too young to remember, but Bill…

MARTIN: I read.

Ms. COHEN: …was a freshman congressman, Republican congressman that voted for the articles of impeachment. So that took a lot of courage even in the days when the Congresspeople were statesmen and gentlemen across the aisle. Bill had the courage to do that, so he's a special kind of Republican.

MARTIN: And received quite a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse as a consequence. I'm talking to William Cohen, former senator for Maine, and Janet Langhart Cohen about their new memoir, "Love in Black and White."

Let's fast-forward a bit. And it was years before you actually got together. And it was years after that…

Ms. COHEN: That we married.

MARTIN: …before you actually married. So, senator, I really have to ask - and Mr. Secretary - were you worried about the effect on your career, the possible impacts on your career if you married a woman of African descent?

Mr. COHEN: Actually, I was not worried. Janet was worried. I had proposed to her on several occasions prior to the time that she finally said yes. But she was afraid that her marriage to me would jeopardized my career. I tried to assure her that the people of Maine would not see it that way, that she had misjudge them, but she said I'll wait until - when you leave, and then we'll discuss it. And I decided to leave for a variety of reasons…

MARTIN: The Senate, you decided to leave the Senate.

Mr. COHEN: Leave the Senate. And we got married in the United States Capitol on Valentine's Day in a great ceremony, and we were prepared to start a new life and then Bill Clinton called after he was reelected and asked me to be his secretary of Defense. But I was prepared for any assaults upon us that - this is something I wanted to do, and I love this woman and nothing was going to stop me.

MARTIN: But Janet, I have to ask you. Were you ever concerned about the impact on your career…

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: No.

MARTIN: …because you are one of the African-American's first. I mean, you were the first, as I understand it - the morning show that you hosted in Boston, first of all, it was one of the first live morning shows in the country.

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: In the country.

MARTIN: You were certainly one of the first African-Americans, major TV personalities, not to mention that fact you had an earlier career as a successful model, and it is often - it is sometimes the case that people in the African-American community are not that thrilled when someone marries…

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: …especially a successful person, because it is perceived as kind of leaving the community behind, and I wondered if you had any of those feelings.

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: I didn't have any of those feelings, but I understand that some of my people do have those feelings, and rightfully so. While I don't except to the abuse, and one comment was made just recently, and I won't say who, but it's a famous director that said every time he sees an interracial couple, he wants to throw daggers. And I understand how our people can feel that way, Michel, but I didn't have any concern about that. I knew I was going to do what I was going to do. I grew up in a community, all black community, that said I could do anything I wanted to do even when there were parameters, mandated legal parameters that said I couldn't.

So when I wasn't going to allow that system, the larger society, white society, tell me what my limits were, I certainly wasn't going to allow any other society to tell me that. Racism clearly exists, and I would say it would exist on both sides, (unintelligible) you know, how you define racism. Black people or people of color who have a resentment toward one of their own marrying outside of the race, that's a different thing. One there isn't a power there, and then there's a history of abuse, that there's an understanding of resentment. But as far as affecting my career, no, I don't think being interracially married affected my career.

I will say something about Bill. When he said that he didn't have any problem marrying me, that the people of Maine would not have a problem, I thought Bill had great aspirations and certainly qualifications to go further than the Senate. And certainly being married to a black woman, I thought white America would have a problem. And as it turned out, I was wrong about Maine. I've been embraced and accepted, and so far, we haven't had any problems because of our interracial marriage. I think it's because America has grown. I think it's because I'm a black woman and not a white woman.

MARTIN: Really? Why?

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: I think it's a dynamic…

MARTIN: We're different.

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: …which reversed. Yes. Yes. I have friends who are - the black man and the white woman. They have emergency plans when they go out. As to - if there's somebody attacking them verbally or physically, they have plans on how they are to rendezvous. They also have a plan where they don't hold hands in public, in certain regions, in certain communities because America, while they may accept Bill and me, they used to say that the only two people in the racial echelon who are free is the black woman and the white man because I think there's no real regard for the black woman except as you started this question of black men may have some consideration.

MARTIN: Well, you sure…

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: My father did.

MARTIN: Really? He objected?

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: He didn't object. He just - when I married - when he heard I was marrying someone white, he said why would you want to - you beautiful flower, give this beautiful flower to a man or a race that will never accept you, won't respect you and treat you as an equal?

MARTIN: And what's your answer?

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: I married Bill.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Well, but - Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you - that you do recount some episodes in the book of crudeness, if not just - it's not as outright hostility of - well, I don't know. Do you want to tell it?

Mr. COHEN: Well, on several occasions, one in New York - and again, racism is not defined by geography. It can happen - it exists everywhere. And we were in sophisticated New York, in a sophisticated restaurant, and I was having dinner with Janet. The table next to us was trying to make eye contact with me throughout the dinner.

When we finally get up to leave, they get up to leave, and on the way out, the gentleman came over to me and said, you really have to be pretty careful what you do in public, don't you? And right away, I said, whoa. I said, yeah, I'm a public figure, and I'm over 21. And he said, well, you have to be concerned with who you're seen with, and he was looking at Janet and namely that being seen with a black woman. And at that point, I had to kind of restrain my emotions not wanting to end up in the tabloids as - in fisticuffs. But that was one example.

Another would have been when one of my colleagues in the Senate started to ask me about Janet. He said, Janet, which one of her parents is white? And I said neither one of them. Why do you ask? He said, well, she's so intelligent. And I don't think he understood what he was saying in terms of the connection, but clearly, in his own mind, if you have white blood, then you must be intellectually superior.

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: Or if you're intelligent, you must be part white. Oh, my goodness.

MARTIN: What message would you like the people to draw from your story and from the book?

Mr. COHEN: I think it's a story, as Janet was saying, is about this country, what this country was like back in the '40s and '50s and all the way through and how it has changed, how we are become better human beings, how a sense of decency really has taken route, that we have a long way to go.

But if you compare the fact that Janet's father couldn't wear his uniform coming back from helping to liberate the camps, the Nazi camps and the Holocaust victims in Europe, that he had to ride in the back of the bus going to visit his parents and couldn't wear his uniform, that 40 years later, 50 years later, his daughter is marrying the secretary of defense. It tells you something how far this country has come. So it's one of - a story of the past in order to tell what the past reflects so we know where we are today, where we need to go tomorrow.

MARTIN: And Janet, what do you want people to get from the book?

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: I want them to get the irony of our story, not just Bill's and mine, but the nation's story. It's the irony that it is the oppressed, that it is the downtrodden of this country that have led the majority, the white people, into their humanity to realize the words of their founding fathers: equality and justice for all. It has been black people who had led us into that, so we show leadership.

MARTIN: Janet Langhart Cohen is CEO of Langhart Communications. William Cohen is former Republican senator for Maine and a former secretary of Defense. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. LANGHART COHEN: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. COHEN: (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Their new book is called "Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Romance."

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up: the Mocha Moms make room for the Mocha Dads, and a special chat on fatherhood and family.

Mr. GLENN IVEY (State Attorney, Prince George's County, Maryland): I found myself during the day thinking about things that I didn't used to think about, like when can I get to the grocery store? Or what am I going to put on the table for dinner tonight? When can we go buy the kids' new shoes? All of those kinds of things that Jolene had really handled through the first 16 years or so, I had to really pick up and take one myself.

MARTIN: That's next.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: