The Zipperts: More than Louisiana’s first interracial marriage
“The work we were doing got more attention and resistance than the two of us and our union. We were changing a social order”
Early state laws in America and in Louisiana forbade interracial marriage. They also criminalized and threatened couples refusing compliance by sentencing them to prison.
This year marks the 45-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving vs. Virginia in 1967, which made interracial marriages legal and annulled anti-miscegenation laws that made it a crime for whites and non-whites to marry in 15 states, including Louisiana.
Before and since that time, interracial couples have encountered a long and tumultuous battle in America, where they have faced threats to their civil and personal liberties.
In 2009, a Hammond justice of the peace, Keith Bardwell, refused to sign a marriage license for an interracial couple, Beth Humphrey, who is white, and Terence McKay, who is black. Gov. Bobby Jindal called for Bardwell’s resignation, and he later resigned.
Some couples also encounter non-accepting family members who scorn them for marrying outside their race. Regardless, these couples have held on to a fundamental freedom and right provided all citizens in the 14th Amendment to freely love and marry a person regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Interracial marriages have steadily grown in number during the post anti-miscegenation years, producing a melting pot of racially diverse children in its wake. Though they sometimes struggle to fit into a society that is insistent on classifying them as one race, they see themselves as more than a boxed-in group of people labeled “other” on applications and registration forms.
Multiracial individuals make up about 9 million or 8 percent of the minority population and will represent a majority of the U.S. population by mid-century, according to Census Bureau estimates.
The story of interracial America would not be complete if not for Louisiana and Alabama civil rights activists and interracial couple John and Carol Zippert, the first interracial couple to wed in Louisiana. Their 45th wedding anniversary this August also marks the year in which the Loving vs. Virginia’s ruling helped make their suit for interracial marriage in Louisiana a reality.
The Zipperts fell in love during a difficult period in America. It was a time when the civil rights struggle was still at its height. John Zippert, 21, of New York, was white and Carol Prejean, 23, of Lafayette, was black, a fact that worked against the pair in 1967 when the anti-miscegenation law in Louisiana barred them from marrying.
Still, they were determined.
“I hadn’t thought about whether it was legal or not,” Carol said. “When we decided that’s what we wanted to do, that was it…”
They met in the mid-60s, embroiled in the civil rights struggle and actively working to reduce racism and promote social change in St. Landry Parish and in Opelousas. John worked for the Congress of Racial Equality from 1965 to 1967. Carol was helping organize black farmers and sharecroppers interested in working to initiate change, which included getting fair prices for their crops.
“I was working with one organization trying to develop a cooperative based in the Lafayette-Lake Charles area and John was working with a cooperative that was in the works in St. Landry parish, a farmers marketing cooperative,” Carol said. “We were trying to work together. The organization involved some of the same people and we were trying to make it a bigger effort. We met at one of those community meetings.”
The couple and other members of the cooperative also helped organize and start up a financial savings club and a cooperative bakery featuring community-made products, Carol said.
“In the process of working together, we developed a romantic relationship and we decided to get married,” John said. “We’d decided to get married first of all and then we encountered this law and we said, ‘Well, let’s try and remove this law.’ We didn’t get married as a pretext to remove the law … We really wanted to get married. But in the process, we thought it would be helpful for other people.”
On March 7, 1967, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana on behalf of John Zippert filed a lawsuit, Zippert vs. Sylvester, in U.S. District Court challenging the anti-miscegenation law and its constitutionality. Zippert said he was denied equal rights as a U.S. citizen and asked to be issued a marriage license.
Zippert’s case was stayed until the Loving vs. Virginia suit could be decided by the Supreme Court. Richard Loving, a white construction worker and his mixed-race (black and Indian) wife, Mildred, were accused of committing the crime of marrying in 1959. A decision in the Loving suit was rendered by the Supreme Court in June 1967 and barred Virginia, and by implication other states including Louisiana, from making interracial marriage a crime.
“Loving vs. Virginia opened the doors for us in Louisiana,” Carol said.
Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, a federal judge decided in John’s favor. This decision declared the Louisiana law prohibiting marriage between whites and blacks unconstitutional, and the state’s long-standing anti-miscegenation law was struck down.
The Zippert’s challenge to the system worked, helping to open the door for thousands of interracial couples to legally wed in future years. Since the 1960s, the number of new interracial marriages has steadily climbed from less than one in 1,000 marriages in 1961, to 6.7 percent in 1980 and 14.6 percent in 2008.
In 2010, about 15.1 percent of all new marriages in the United States were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity, according to the Pew Research Center. Interracial marriages in all number about 8.4 percent.
The Zipperts married at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Lafayette in what was considered the predominately black district on Aug 13, 1967. According to newspaper accounts, police patrolled the area and the media was barred from entering the church where about 600 people attended, including 15 people who were non-black, reports said.
“When we stepped out (of the church), there were all kinds of photographers there from different media,” Carol said. “I did not want the media at the service. No, this was not a public spectacle, this was a private, personal, precious experience for us.”
Newspaper coverage in the late ’60s often referred to the 23-year-old Carol as a Lafayette Negro girl, and made no mention of her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1966 or of her civil rights work. One article did mention her attendance at LSU in 1967, however.
Nor did the headlines mention Carol’s efforts to demand fair treatment from a grocer near Opelousas who refused to give black customers correct change. After hearing about one customer being chased out of the store by the owner, Carol marched in protest outside the store. To her surprise, the grocer began shooting in the air.
“It was a scary moment and the police came soon afterward,” she said. “He closed the store down eventually because the black community would no longer buy there or shop there.”
John’s civil rights efforts, though mentioned in news articles, were not all painted favorably.
In 1966, the Louisiana Senate ordered the joint legislative committee on Un-American Activities to begin an investigation that cited John for being affiliated with communist activities. They issued a nearly 200-page report with their findings.
“Unfortunately, civil rights activities became identified as Un-American and communist so I think the state of Louisiana made a special effort to try and suggest that I was a communist,” John said. “I believe in people working together to help themselves. I believe in cooperatives and so on. I am not a communist.”
The legislature subpoenaed John, though he never appeared after his lawyer told him the subpoena was unjust and illegal.
John said the report has continued to affect his life. It included copies of checks and even letters that he had written.
“They had a voluminous file of things about me and of things I’d done, which suggested to me that the rest of my life, whenever I write a check or whenever I write a letter or say something, I know it might come back again,” John said.
Carol agreed that the couple’s social and political activism sparked more controversy than their marriage.
“The work we were doing got more attention and resistance than the two of us and our union. We were changing a social order, one that could bear upon the economics and leadership as well because whatever we did, we tried to touch the lives of people in every aspect. There was always voter education, always mobilization to vote...trying to get our communities to empower themselves economically…”
A Life of Activism
In 1971, the couple moved to Sumter County, Ala. to help develop and build the Federation of Southern Cooperative’s training center and further the movement of economic and social justice. The cooperative, founded in 1967, helped generate job growth, provide social services including job training and promote the spirit of self-help for people in poverty-stricken rural counties.
“We moved (from Louisiana) in September 1971, and we cried a lot and it was sad to leave all of the culture, community and all of the people, but it was important to build this training center,” John said.
In 1976, the couple moved to Eutaw, Ala. in Greene County where their civil rights and other activist works continued.
Whether co-publishing a small-town newspaper or challenging the system’s way of doing things, John, who is now an official with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, said obstacles abound wherever people stand up for something important.
The couple helped organize the opening of a credit union in 1975 in the predominately black area of their county.
“It’s one of the few community-based credit unions that serves the whole county,” Carol said.
The Zipperts have also worked to address community empowerment institutions through the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, which helps young people develop community leadership skills and exposes them to cultural travel in Africa. Carol founded the Black Belt Community Foundation, which serves 11 counties in the Alabama Black Belt region by helping to raise funds for community projects such as supporting after-school programs or refurbishing a park, Carol said. After 1976, Carol also was elected and served for two, six-year terms on the Greene County School Board.
Other efforts include a non-profit political organization that helps people stay active politically with voter registration and voter education projects, she said. The Zipperts have also worked on a campaign to abolish the death penalty in Alabama and to abolish Alabama House Bill No. 56, an immigration reform bill they believe could take away voting rights for immigrants.
“Through all of our organizations, we combine all of this work of advocacy for social change that’s really in the benefit of all people,” Carol said.
In the mid-1980s, the Zipperts and members of their community purchased a newspaper to help provide fair and accurate coverage of the city’s minority community.
That move was the result of a series of actions involving residents of a housing project in Greene County who had submitted petitions in favor of being annexed into the city of Eutaw in 1984. At the time, Eutaw was about 50 percent black and 50 percent white, and the city resisted the black housing project residents’ efforts to annex, John said.
The newspaper, The Greene County Democrat, failed to interview anyone in favor of the annex.
“We went to challenge the newspaper early in 1984 and said, ‘How can you say you’re a newspaper and you don’t at least print something about both sides and give some exposure to views of people who want to be annexed,” John said. “They said, ‘we decide what goes in the paper.’ We said, ‘are you thinking of ever selling the paper?’”
In a separate incident, the Zipperts helped organize a boycott and set up picket lines in protest of the newspaper’s critical and biased coverage of black elected political officers, they said.
“The owners got the message and saw the handwriting on the wall that (the newspaper) was not going to be able to operate the way it did,” Carol said.
Several months later, the owner put the newspaper up for sale.
“It’s just like everything else we’ve done, the system has placed obstacles. They really don’t want people to have a different view of how things should be…The newspaper is another story of the overall struggles that we have been involved in to make a change.”
Rearing and Educating Children
Outside their community wide efforts, the Zipperts have three children, two girls and a boy, all high school valedictorians who graduated from Xavier University in New Orleans. Two of their children are employed in engineering fields and one in the medical field, they said.
The Zipperts agreed to rear their interracial children in the black community early on and to “raise them as black.” Carol also said it was a common practice to apply the one-drop rule, which classified any person with one drop of black blood as black.
She said she never wanted her children to be labeled “other” and she often explained to her children that they embodied both races.
“Black is not the color you are, it’s the kind of people you are. You are black folks and white as well, but you are living in a community of black folks,” she would tell them. “(After talking with them), I never perceived that they had a struggle with who they were or are.”
Education was a big deal in their home, John said.
“We gave them a lot of exposure. We read to them from the time they were small,” he said. “I gave quarters and paid them 50 cents for doing book reports. We did mathematical puzzles just for fun and it had an educational purpose.”
They brought the children on conference trips through various parts of the country including Washington D.C. and the Grand Canyon.
Civil rights activities were also a part of their children’s education.
“In 1984 when Jessie Jackson ran for president, they sat on his knee,” John said. “I took them on marches and demonstrations. They’ll ask me today, why did we go to that march for the chicken workers in Mississippi?”
The issue of racism is one that the Zipperts openly discuss with their children.
“Racism is learned. A person is not born disliking another person, it’s taught,” Carol said. “I tried to teach my children to respect and to see goodness in everything about folk. There aren’t bad people. We just choose to do bad things, and that was my principle in teaching them about racism as well.”
Carol explained that society is still missing the opportunity to reshape the way young people feel about each other and to unlearn racist views.
“We are keeping black and white children apart and my hope is that if they were together more in daily environments, school and in sports and in each person’s homes, they would learn who they are as people,” Carol said. “If they aren’t going to like somebody it’s because they don’t play fair and not because he is black or white.”