Illustration by Kathleen Foley
Richard and Mildred Loving slept next to one another in bed like any husband and wife did during the late night hours.
But, unlike most married couples today, the Lovings had their slumber interrupted by police and a discriminating law that would not only have them spend the next few days in jail, but also lead to their exile from Virginia.
An Unaccepted Love
1958 was not a great time for Richard Loving, a Caucasian brick layer, and Mildred Jeter, his African American and Native American high school sweetheart to be in love.
Slavery had offically ended 93 years prior, but the country was still ripe with racial discrimination.
Mildred had been born in rural Virginia in 1939. These were the times of the miscegenation laws, which sought to keep the Caucasian race “pure” through the prohibition of interracial marriage.
But despite all of this, Richard and Mildred were in love (she was also pregnant at the time) and so the couple drove 80 miles to Washington, and did what Virginia thought an abomination: They were wed.
Five weeks later, they paid the price.
When the Lovings returned to Virginia, their marriage license hung proudly on their bedroom wall. But on the early morning of July 11, 1958, around 2 a.m., the sheriff broke into the couple’s bedroom along with two of his deputies.
“I saw the lights, you know, and I woke up and it was the policeman standing beside the bed and he told us to get out and that we was under arrest,” Mildred recounted in a 1967 ABC News report.
“Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?” the sheriff asked, as he cast his torch’s light over Richard’s face.
“I’m his wife,” Mildred replied. Her husband had been too gripped with fear to answer.
But Richard finally did show the sheriff their marriage license- the piece of paper that proved a Caucasian husband and an African American and Native American wife stood before these enforcers of Virginia law.
“That’s no good here,” came the sheriff’s response.
The Lovings spent the next several nights behind bars. Mildred had been jailed for a few nights, while Richard spent only one night.
Even though the Lovings were married in Washington, their license was invalid in Virginia as dictated by the state’s law. They were charged with “cohabitating as man and wife against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.”
The judge, who found them guilty, embodied the discriminatory law with every word he spoke: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The Lovings were criminals.
To avoid a one year prison sentence, Richard and Mildred agreed to leave Virginia for 25 years. If they wanted to return to their home state and visit their families, each had to make the trip alone.
Mildred and Richard Loving
Loving v. Virginia
On May 17, 1955, the Supreme Court had ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. On December 1 of the next year, Rosa Parks made the historic decision not to yield her front-of-the-bus seat to a white passenger.
So, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and its numerous victories, Mrs. Loving became inspired, and wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking for help. He directed her to the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) where lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop took the case.
They were headed to the Supreme Court.
The Lovings’ lawyers discussed many ways to approach their day in America’s highest court. But Mr. Loving, no lawyer himself, but a husband, said, “Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
His emotional words spoke to the very core of their battle. They had placed themselves in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, but at the end of the day, they simply wanted to be able to fall asleep next to one another at home as husband and wife.
“We have thought about other people,” Mr. Loving said in a 1955 interview with Life Magazine, “but we are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”
With racial discrimination weakened throughout America’s legal system, the Lovings did it for interracial couples everywhere.
In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 to end miscegenation laws throughout the entire country. Sixteen states still had them in place at the time.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had also wrote the court’s opinion for Brown v. Board of Education, wrote in his ruling that marriage is “one of the basic civil rights of man… To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as racial classification embodied in these stature…is surely to deprive all the state’s citizens of liberty.”
To this Richard Loving proclaimed, “I feel free now.”
The Fight Goes On
Richard and Mildred returned to Virginia as Mr. and Mrs. Loving, but soon after, tragedy struck.
Mr. Loving was killed in a car crash in 1975. Mrs. Loving never remarried. She was a quiet woman, who, never seeking out the spotlight, very rarely gave an interview.
But on June 12, 2007, the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, Mrs. Loving delivered a speech in response to the politically charged issue of gay marriage:
“Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.”
By the time of Mrs. Loving’s death in 2008 at age 68, she was survived by her son, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grand children.
At the end of it all, Mr. and Mrs. Loving could claim to be criminals no more. They were simply husband and wife.