Meet the Japanese-American Lawyer Who Fought for Interracial Marriage in the 1960s
By Carl Samson
December 29, 2017
William Marutani, a Japanese-American lawyer from Kent, Washington, is not exactly a household name.
But if walls from one courtroom half a century ago could talk, they would have named him as one of the forerunners of interracial marriage.
That’s because on April 10, 1967, Marutani stood before the Supreme Court to support the popular case of Mildred and Richard Loving — a Black woman and a White man arrested for marrying in 1958 Virginia.
Marutani was not the Lovings’ lawyer. Instead, he represented the Japanese American Citizens League, one of the outside groups that filed an amicus brief and was permitted to speak in favor of the couple.
As the league’s general counsel, he began his arguments by dissecting what it means to be White under Virginia law, which prevents Whites from marrying anyone with a “trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”
Citing Europe’s history of invasion, Marutani stressed that most people in Virginia will find racial purity difficult to prove. He also claimed that Virginia’s law left the responsibility of interpreting racial designations to laymen, such as clerks who authorized marriage licenses.
What appeared to be his strongest move came when he questioned Virginia’s justification for banning interracial marriage. Under the law, only Whites were barred from marrying outside their race, while the rest can intermarry.
Considering the state’s aim to maintain “‘purity of public morals,’ ‘preservation of racial integrity’ as well as ‘racial pride’ and ‘to prevent a mongrel breed of citizens,’” he called it a law of white supremacy.
Marutani didn’t have much time to speak, but that 15 minutes of argumentation would have contributed to the court’s decision that changed the course of American history. Interracial marriage was finally made legal, and the Lovings were the first to win such liberty.
Marutani would continue serving for civil rights. Speaking to The New Yorker, his daughter, Nancy, said that his advocacy for civil rights may have stemmed from the injustice he faced during World War II.
Marutani was interned at the infamous Tule Lake concentration camp, which incarcerated Japanese-Americans who were forcibly removed from the West Coast of the United States.
Nancy Marutani told the publication:
“I believe that it affected him deeply. He was born here and he was a good student, so I think that the civil-rights work that he did, the work that he did on Loving v. Virginia, was because he was compelled to take up the cause of protecting people who were subjected to unequal application of the law just because of their color, their race, their religion. To him, that wasn’t American.”
In a 1998 interview with Discover Nikkei, Marutani shared what inspired him to rally for civil rights:
“I think Martin Luther King put it very succinctly. He said ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ And that is true.”
In 1975, Marutani was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and became the first Asian-American judge. Six years later, he served at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which paved the way for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted public apologies and $20,000 to surviving internees.
After serving in many different positions, Marutani retired as a judge in 1986 but remained active in the Japanese-American community. He wrote for the Pacific Citizen newspaper and became the board chairman of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, as noted by Densho.
Marutani died on Nov. 15, 2004, at his home in Lumberton, Burlington County, New Jersey.
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