Stephanie Hinnershitz: Before Loving: How the Naim v. Naim Case Challenges Civil Rights Narratives

Stephanie Hinnershitz, A Different Shade of JusticeToday we welcome a guest blog post from Stephanie Hinnershitz, author of A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South, on the global nature of struggles over civil rights.

From the formation of Chinese and Japanese communities in the early twentieth century through Indian hotel owners’ battles against business discrimination in the 1980s and ’90s, Stephanie Hinnershitz shows how Asian Americans organized carefully constructed legal battles that often traveled to the state and federal supreme courts. Drawing from legislative and legal records as well as oral histories, memoirs, and newspapers, A Different Shade of Justice describes a movement that ran alongside and at times intersected with the African American fight for justice, and she restores Asian Americans to the fraught legacy of civil rights in the South.

A Different Shade of Justice is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Before Loving: How the Naim v. Naim Case Challenges Civil Rights Narratives

This year has been one of celebration and remembrance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Loving v. Virgnia Supreme Court decision that overturned centuries of anti-miscegentation law in the United States. From a major motion picture to a historical plaque placed in front of the former site of the Supreme Court of Virginia in Richmond noting the monumental case, Loving Day (June 12th—when the decision was handed down) commemorates the victory of the bond between Mildred Loving, an African American woman, and her white husband, Richard, over the Virginia Racial Impurity Act of 1924 which barred marriages between whites and “colored” residents.

But this story of the triumph of love over racism is incomplete without a consideration of the largely overlooked 1955 Naim v. Naim case that went before the Supreme Court and also involved an interracial couple from Virginia. Han Say Naim was a Chinese-born sailor who came to New York City during World War II and eventually made his way to Norfolk. While there, he became smitten with a local white woman named Ruby Lamberth and the two began a whirlwind courtship. Shortly thereafter in 1952, Naim and Lamberth eloped to North Carolina in order to avoid Virginia’s strict ban on interracial marriages. By 1953, however, the marriage began to disintegrate.

A major contribution to growing tension between the couple was Han’s quest to remain in the U.S. as a spouse and pursue citizenship. Virginia-based immigration and civil rights lawyer David Carliner worked with the Naims as the pair poured money, time, and other resources into helping Han become a legal citizen. The slow legal slog through paperwork and bureaucracy eventually took its toll on Ruby. Seeking to end the marriage, Ruby went to the Portsmouth Circuit Court in Virginia in 1953 and sought an absolute divorce while alleging that Han committed adultery while he was away working on various ships. Portsmouth judge Floyd Kellam found no proof of Han’s adultery and denied Ruby a divorce; however, he did annul the marriage using the Racial Integrity Act, stating that the marriage was void under Virginia law.

Han turned to Carliner to guide him in how to proceed. If Han hoped to be able to remain in the United States and eventually become a citizen, his only recourse was to challenge Ruby’s case by directly tackling antimiscegenation law. Carliner knew that the Supreme Court of Virginia would more than likely refuse to overturn Kellam’s decision, marking the first step in developing a case that would require more attention from the Supreme Court. For Han, however, the appeal was an opportunity to insist on his right to equal protection and residency that had been abridged by the state of Virginia.

Carliner used Han’s alien status to argue that the code was in violation of a variety of federal treaties and constitutional laws. The Angell Treaty of 1880 granted Chinese immigrants “most favored nation” status and agreed to extend certain rights and privileges to Chinese laborers already living in the United States. Carliner argued that the Angell Treaty between the U.S. and China “superseded” the Virginia code and guaranteed that Chinese nationals would receive equal protection and rights. Carliner also evoked the “diversity of citizenship” clause in the Constitution in his appeal, arguing that because Han was still a citizen of China, the Naim case fell within the jurisdiction of federal authorities rather than state courts.

After a lengthy appeals process, Han’s case finally reached the Supreme Court in 1955, but the outcome would be less than ideal. The Court chose not to rule on the case and sent it back to Virginia, arguing that the issue was a state matter rather than a federal one. The Court did not intervene in the complicated issue of antimiscegenation law and also limited Han’s ability to pursue legal justice as a noncitizen. In addition to delaying the fight against laws prohibiting interracial marriage, the Court also exposed the legal difficulties that immigrants such as Naim faced.

What can historians and the public learn from the Naim case? One answer lies in the more global nature of civil rights battles that touched on issues of immigration policy and foreign affairs. Another is to view Naim not as a “failed” case or merely a stop along the march to Loving, but rather as an example of how different approaches to citizenship and rights have various legal, social, and cultural impacts.


Stephanie Hinnershitz is assistant professor of history at Cleveland State University.