Case of Delta Sheriff’s Interracial Marriage Is One For The Books, Screen

Nov 17, 2016

Actors Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols' new movie.
Credit Focus Features

Little Rock director Jeff Nichols’ new movie “Loving” opens statewide this weekend. It’s based on the love story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial rural Virginia couple whose marriage became the basis of a 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down all laws prohibiting interracial marriage or mingling.

Nichols has said his own experiences attending Central High School formed some of his connection to the material. He formed some more connection when he got a call from Martin Scorcese, as he told Deadline in an interview:

“I grew up in Arkansas, and I went to Little Rock Central High, which was the site of a desegregation crisis in ’57. I graduated in ’97. So I was inundated with Civil Rights history and impact, but I’d never heard of Mildred and Richard Loving before. As uninspiring as this sounds, I got a call from my agent, who said that Martin Scorsese wanted to speak with me. He had been kind of a shepherd of this project and wanted to see it made into a narrative film.”

Nichols, who filmed his third movie, Mud, in Desha County, might have looked first in his own backyard.

In 1884 a popular county official, Sheriff Isaac Bankston, was tried for having married a year earlier an Arkansas City woman named Missouri Bradford in Memphis. Such an act contravened both Tennesse and Arkansas law.

Making matters worse, Bankston owned land and had been re-elected four times to his law enforcement position.

Making them more sordid, he had a white wife, and a boy and a girl, back home.

He'd struck up a relationship with Bradford in Arkansas City, the county seat. She was later described by the Arkansas Gazette as "known to bear a bad character," though to Bankston's way of thinking she was worth it all — he moved her to Memphis, put her up in a residence, and found a minister who'd marry them.

Charles Robinson
Credit U. of Arkansas

University of Arkansas vice chancellor Charles Robinson is a historian who's written several books on the subject of illicit miscegenation and the maturation and final extirpation of laws against it. Bankston was initially apprehended and held in the county jail he helped to build. Perhaps predictably, he escaped. (He was reacquired in Greenville, Miss.)

In court, Bankston didn't refute his marriage to Bradford. Instead, he argued he was not white. He said he was part American Indian. The minister who married them, J.E. Roberts, a black man, testified that Bankston told him he was not white and he believed him.

"Even the county clerk who issued the marriage license assumed he was a person of color."

Princeton professor Martha Sandweiss is another expert on turn-of-the-century interracial coupling. Her book Passing Strange details the story of renowned geologist and cartographer Clarence King whose secret marriage to Ada Copeland — he white, she black — produced several offspring and a false identity for King, who told Copeland he was James Todd, a Pullman Porter and a black man. 

Martha Sandweiss
Credit Princeton U.

That people were easily persuaded by whites who passed for black, Sandweiss says, is explained in part by the simple argument, "why would a person claim to be of a group … that afforded you fewer privileges?"

Conversely, "we know that, throughout the South, there were laws passed that said if one of your great-grandparents was black, you were black. That doesn’t mean you looked that way. So, there was a disjunction between what you thought and how you were defined."

The trial of Isaac Bankston lasted just one day. The jury returned a verdict without leaving the courtroom, Robinson has written. Meanwhile, one of the prosecuting attorneys, J.D. Coates of Desha County, who may have tipped off authorities to the Bankston-Bradford nuptials, Robinson says, was charged by the trial judge with paying all of the court fees. 

Bankston was free to run back into the arms of Bradford but probably not his wife and life back in Desha County. The Arkansas Gazette had published accounts of the sensational affair, and the sheriff was stripped of his badge. Two days after his court date, Bankston returned and confronted Coates on the steps of the courthouse. As Bankston drew his revolver, Coates drew a knife. The latter was shot, but the former lunged and mortally wounded the ex-sheriff.

They both died.

Why Bankston thought it was OK to take a second wife is lost to history. Bankston and Bradford produced a child from his extramarital liaisons — perhaps it was the only way he could imagine to keep it all going quietly. 

But Robinson likes this case because it illustrates a brief period between the end of the Civil War through the 1870s when elected black Arkansans and Republican Party strength in the state tamped down the criminality of interracial marriage. The printing of the state's laws and constitution — the Digest — omits any mention of anti-miscegenation laws in 1864, 1868 and 1874.

After Bankston, there could be no doubt the position of the state, which oversees these civil contracts.

In 1874   Thomas and Mary Dodson married in Pulaski Co. In 1895 — 21 years later — the state Supreme Court finally annulled it. Even though it wasn’t explicitly illegal at the time, they argued, it was in the antebellum era, and it is now.

"It is not true that marriage is only a civil contract," went the majority opinion. "It is more than that. It is a social and domestic relation, subject to the exercise of the highest governmental power of the sovereign state — the police power."

"Miscegenation laws served as kind of the bedrock of these Jim Crow laws because it reinforced that the races should be separated biologically should be separated in terms of the family social structure because that was critical in making Jim Crow laws operate practically," Robinson says.

Today, Arkansas City and Desha County generally is a Delta community pretty evenly split black and white, and perhaps unsurprisingly, many young adults there who haven't any experiences with Jim Crow segregation, grow up together, find familiarity, pursue romance and marry. 

Tomorrow, Arkansas Public Media travels to Arkansas City to investigate interracial romances and families. Arkansas Public Media is a statewide reporting project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public radio stations around Arkansas. 'Like' our Facebook page, Arkansas Public Media.