Betty and John: How love broke the color line in Georgia

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

50 years ago, John and Betty Sanford challenged the state law that forbade interracial marriage

Betty Byrom began talking to the 6-foot-plus John Sanford one evening in the canteen at the Indiana University grad school dorm, and found him quite appealing.

The two were an unusual pair: She was a dark-skinned Georgia girl and he was a pale Midwesterner, six years her junior.

But both were studying the social sciences, and their conversation eclipsed everything that was happening around them. “We talked and talked and talked. When we looked around, we were the only people left in the canteen,” she remembers, 50 years later. “At midnight, he walked me home.”

Said John, “I was interested.” Then adds wryly, “fortunately I didn’t know about the age difference.” (He was 24; she was 30.)

That meeting sparked a romance, then a proposal. It produced a marriage and two sons and a union still going strong after 50 years. It also brought about the end of a medieval Georgia law forbidding marriage between Black and white citizens.

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Georgia did not change easily. It required the intervention of the U.S. attorney general on behalf of the young couple, and a restraining order against a Clayton County ordinary.

Betty and John recognize that what happened on May 8, 1971, in Clayton County, Georgia, was a significant event.

Just before the wedding, a Jet magazine reporter offered to accompany them to Danforth Chapel on the Morehouse College campus and tell that story, but they demurred. This was a personal occasion, not national news.

Now they know it was both.

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

Going to the chapel

Betty Byrom grew up in Hapeville, right near the airport. She experienced a turning point in her life as a high school student during a special trip to New York and Washington, D.C. Standing outside the Supreme Court building and looking up at the inscription, “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW,” she had a revelation.

“That statement was totally not true, and it shook me to the core,” she said recently from her home in Lansing, Michigan. “Tears ran down my face.”

John Sanford grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana. His father worked for U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana, and John volunteered at the Gary Neighborhood House, a social service center in an all-Black neighborhood.

While his life was lived at a distance from that world, his experience prompted him to study sociology at Purdue.

At Purdue, he was also required to join the ROTC, and he graduated with an officer’s commission. Sanford was a second lieutenant, taking officer’s training at Fort Benning, and Byrom was working for the Urban League in Detroit when they were engaged.

“When I was a young girl, I said I don't think I'd marry a white guy. I don't even think I want to date one. If I did marry one, he'd have to be rich. I surprised myself, I'm going to tell you. When I met John, I forgot all about that."

- Betty Sanford

On April 2, 1971, they posted an engagement announcement in The Atlanta Constitution and began to plan the wedding at long distance, reserving a spot at the Danforth Chapel, arranging a reception at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA and a honeymoon in Florida.

The invitations went out. Relatives in South Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, New Mexico and Ohio organized travel arrangements. On Tuesday, May 4, they sought a marriage license from the Clayton County ordinary, H.W. Roberts.

He told them it was against the law, and he would be charged with a misdemeanor if he cooperated. Then he gave them the card of a lawyer who might help them.

John and Betty politely accepted the card, left the courthouse and drove right past the lawyer’s office. “I knew about the Loving case,” said Betty, and she was against hiring a lawyer. “We’re not paying one penny,” she said at the time. “This case has already been won.”

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The Loving decision

In 1958, a Virginia couple named Richard and Mildred Loving were sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other. They were arrested after police raided their home in the middle of the night, shining a flashlight in their faces as they slept in their own bed.

Their appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, which found in their favor and vacated the Virginia law against interracial marriage.

That ruling instantly voided so-called anti-miscegenation state laws elsewhere, said scholar Jane Dailey, though states fought against the change.

Dailey, author of “White Fright,” and professor of history at the University of Chicago, said some states, such as Alabama, thought they could permanently protect laws against interracial marriage by including them in the state constitution. It didn’t work.

Dailey’s book details the way white Southerners sought to reinforce Jim Crow laws by exploiting fears of marital relations between the races. In Georgia, the strategy worked until 1971.

It is difficult to know whether a Georgia marriage license may have been granted to another interracial couple before the Sanfords were wed. Anne Sodini Emanuel, former associate dean of the Georgia State University Law School, said despite the fact that Georgia’s law was vacated by the 1967 decision, it was still on the books, and “the likelihood a county clerk would still honor it is not remote.”

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

When the Sanfords’ application for a license was turned down, the wedding was only four days away. Family members were en route to Georgia. The cake was ordered. She already had a dress.

Growing desperate, they asked for assistance from John’s military authorities, from the ACLU and from Georgia state Rep. Julian Bond.

All were willing to help, but none could produce a license in four days. The minister they had reserved backed out, citing the lack of a license.

Betty asked her brother-in-law, the Rev. Ernest M. Bradford, if he would officiate. Bradford had marched on Selma with John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He wasn’t scared.

“Betty came up with an idea,” said John. “That idea,” said Betty, “was to call the U.S. attorney general’s office in Washington. That’s when things started rolling in our favor.”

The attorney on their case assured them that they could proceed with the wedding, and that by the time they returned from their honeymoon, they would have a license.

The Sanfords enjoyed their May 8 ceremony, their three-tiered wedding cake, and their drive through Florida. When they returned, the U.S. attorney told them Clayton County was ready to issue a license. Betty insisted that the license be dated May 8.

“I didn’t think my marriage license date should suffer because of Georgia being out of compliance,” she said.

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Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

Life in black and white

They knew marriage would have its challenges. His parents and her parents both cautioned that the world could be hurtful.

John said that the first 10 years of their married life were spent on military bases, and that made things easier. He served two years in Army active duty and eight years as a civilian with the American Red Cross Service to Armed Forces. (According to Dailey, interracial marriage is more common among those serving in the armed forces than in other demographics.)

After their two sons, Jawara and Mani, were born, they didn’t give them “the talk” or stress racial lines, and they didn’t tell them about their conflict with the state of Georgia until many years later.

“I didn’t want them to grow up with some of the anger I had growing up, so I didn’t talk to them a lot about the lesson people give their kids about police,” said Betty.

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

Credit: Sylvia Jarrus

“Sometimes ignorance can make things smoother,” said Jawara in a Zoom call from Madrid, Spain, where he teaches philosophy at the St. Louis University, Madrid campus.

“I think that must be part of the explanation for why I didn’t tend to think about race very much,” he said. “I would say I was genuinely somewhat naive.”

Things have changed since 1971. The vice president of the United States is not only a Black woman, but she is married to a white man.

At the Democratic convention, when Kamala Harris and her family came out onstage, “I remember thinking, ‘what a beautiful rainbow of colors,’” said Betty. “To see that in America is so gratifying, I think it will do a lot to change attitudes.”

In 2017, Betty and John spoke before some 100 members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing about their journey and about their debt to Richard and Mildred Loving. “They paved the way for us,” said Betty. “I feel like I’m indebted to them. Nobody walked in our bedroom and shined a light in our face at night.”

Their plans for Valentine’s Day — and for their 50th anniversary on May 8 — are somewhat muted by COVID-19. The two have been playing it safe, and don’t even go to the grocery store, preferring to have their food delivered. They plan to capture their life in a video that can be shared with family and friends.

The freedom that they made possible however, will be shared by many Georgia couples, and couples around the country.

What their experience proves, said Betty Sanford, is that while love may not conquer all, “it conquers a lot.”


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