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Loving, Mildred

Mildred Loving

1939-2008

Homemaker, civil rights activist

Mildred Loving's marriage to Richard Perry Loving in 1958 brought about a series of events that challenged and eventually defeated the last segregation laws in the United States that banned interracial marriage. A woman from the rural South who had no aspirations of becoming a civil rights pioneer, Loving nevertheless became a hero in the civil rights movement and a symbol of the fortitude required to challenge authority in the face of injustice.

Grew Up in Rural Virginia

Mildred Loving was born Mildred Delores Jeter on June 22, 1939, in Central Point, Virginia, a rural community located in Caroline County. Loving was of African-American, Cherokee, and Rappahannock descent, and as a child identified herself as Native American. While some parts of the South were plagued by racial conflict, Central Point was known for its amicable race relations. Many of the town's residents were of mixed racial heritage and, when traveling outside of Central Point, were able to frequent white-only establishments and find employment in companies that typically hired only white workers.

Loving and her future husband, Richard, knew each other as children, and their families were friendly, both families having lived in Central Point for generations. When she was eleven years old, Mildred Jeter, then known as "Bean" for her tall, slim build and light complexion, became friends with Richard Loving, then aged seventeen, and the friendship developed into a romance. Given the prevalence of mixed-race individuals in the town, the relationship was not considered unusual by friends and family. When she was eighteen years old Mildred Jeter became pregnant, and, not wanting to have a child out of wedlock, she and Loving decided to marry.

Unfortunately for them Virginia was one of sixteen states that maintained antimiscegenation laws that made it illegal for people of different races to marry or be married within the state. Virginia adopted its first antimiscegenation law in 1662, one year after the state of Maryland enacted the first antimiscegenation statute in the nation. Lawmakers had periodically updated the state's segregation and antimiscegenation laws, culminating in the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which set out a classification system for persons who could be considered "pure white," defined as having an exclusively white ancestry from at least 1684. The penalty for violating the state's antimiscegenation law was established in 1878 at up to five years in prison.

Loving later claimed that she was unaware that interracial marriage was illegal or what the penalties were but that her husband was at least aware that they would have to leave the state to be married. "I think my husband knew," Loving said in an interview with the Associated Press in 2007. "I think he thought [if] we were married, they couldn't bother us." The couple traveled eighty miles to Washington, DC, and were married by a pastor that they chose from the telephone directory. They then returned to Central Point, hoping to raise their child in the company of their families.

Arrested for Violating State Law

According to Loving's account in numerous interviews, she and her husband were awakened early in the morning of July 11, 1958, by police standing in their bedroom. Sheriff Garnett Brooks was one of the officers who confronted the Lovings, acting on an anonymous tip that had reached the Commonwealth's attorney. "He told me to go and check on them, [and] if they [were married] to arrest them," said Brooks in a 2007 interview with ABC News. "I told him I'd be glad to do it."

"I guess it was about 2 am," Loving told ABC News in 1967. "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." According to Loving, the policeman asked her husband, "Who is this woman you're sleeping with?" and she responded for him "I'm his wife." Richard Loving rose from the bed to show the sheriff their marriage license, but the sheriff informed them that the license was not legal in the state of Virginia. The Lovings were charged with, according to the text of their indictments, "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth."

The Lovings were taken to Bowling Green and placed in detention. Richard Loving was released after a single night in holding, while his wife was forced to spend several days in the county jail. Following their arrest, both went to live with their parents until they came before the county court in 1959. County Circuit judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced the Lovings to a year in prison for violating the Racial Integrity Act, but offered the couple a deal, proposing to set aside the sentence if the Lovings agreed to leave Virginia for no less than twenty-five years. In the transcripts of the original case, Bazile wrote his opinion: "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 paid $36.29 each in court fees and moved to Washington, DC, where they lived in a predominantly poor, African-American neighborhood. The Lovings returned to Central Point the following Easter and were again arrested for violating the terms of their sentence. Though each was allowed to visit their families in Central Point, they were not allowed to return together.

Challenged Law Prohibiting Interracial Marriage

The Lovings lived for several years in Washington, DC, and had three children, living a modest life on Richard Loving's income as a bricklayer. After falling on difficult financial times, the Lovings' longing to be nearer to friends and family became more acute. In her 1967 interview with ABC News, Loving said that the decision to challenge the state law came soon after their son Donnie was struck by a car in their dangerous DC neighborhood.

In 1963, acting on the suggestion of a friend, Loving wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy passed the letter on to Bernard S. Cohen, a Virginia lawyer and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union who, with his colleague Philip J. Hirschkop, decided to take the Lovings' case. Though the civil rights movement had been gaining momentum through such leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1963 led a historic march in Birmingham, Alabama, few attempted to challenge antimiscegenation laws, which were thought of as one of the most difficult segregation issues to address.

Cohen and Hirschkop faced an immediate difficulty; because the Lovings had accepted the court's plea bargain, they were not entitled to an appeal. Cohen met with the Lovings to discuss possible options, at which time Richard Loving gave him the simple advice, "Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can't live with her in Virginia." Though marriage had long been the province of state law, Cohen was confident that they would be successful at the federal level. "I knew it was going to be a landmark case," Cohen told Anne Gearan in a 1992 article in the Chicago Tribune. "And I definitely thought there was something serendipitous about the fact that the case would be called Loving vs. the Commonwealth of Virginia."

At a Glance …

Born Mildred Delores Jeter on June 22, 1939, in Central Point, VA; died May 2, 2008, in Central Point, VA; married Richard Perry Loving (a construction worker) 1958 (died 1975); children: Donald, Sidney, Peggy.

Won Support of U.S. Supreme Court

Cohen and Hirschkop took the case to the Virginia State Court of Appeals, which decided to uphold the lower court's ruling. The lawyers appealed, and the case was accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court and set for trial in 1967. Though Cohen and Hirschkop were interested in the ultimate legal ramifications of the case, the Lovings were modest about their role in the case, insisting that they were simply normal people who wanted to live their life freely. "We loved each other and got married," Loving said in a 1965 article in the Washington Evening Star. "We are not marrying the state. The law should allow a person to marry anyone he wants." In the same article, Richard Loving commented "They said I had to leave the state once, and I left with my wife. If necessary, I will leave Virginia again with my wife, but I am not going to divorce her."

During the trial Cohen and Hirschkop argued that any law that is based on race is suspect and that the burden is thereby shifted to the state to prove that the law in question serves the public interest. Cohen's passionate arguments to the court were widely reported, as he argued that any couple regardless of race should enjoy the same rights of marriage. "The Lovings have the right to go to sleep at night knowing that if they should not wake in the morning, their children would have the right to inherit from them. They have the right to be secure in knowing that, if they go to sleep and do not wake in the morning, that one of them, a survivor of them, has the right to Social Security benefits. All of these are denied to them, and they will not be denied to them if the whole antimiscegenistic scheme of Virginia… [is] found unconstitutional."

On February 12, 1967, the Supreme Court voted 9-0 that the Virginia statute and all other antimiscegenation statutes were unconstitutional. In the official court records, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

Returned to Virginia

The court's ruling, known as the "Loving Decision," made any antimiscegenation law unconstitutional. Some states kept laws against racial marriage on the books for decades, including Alabama, which was the last state to remove antimiscegenation laws in 2000. The Lovings were subjected to a barrage of interviews during and immediately following the trial though both expressed a desire to retreat from the spotlight and live their lives in peace. The Lovings returned to Virginia with their family, where Richard Loving worked as a construction worker and built a small, concrete block house for his family.

In 1975 the Lovings were in a car accident with a drunk driver, which cost Mildred Loving her right eye and killed her husband. Loving never remarried, living the rest of her life in the home her husband built in Caroline County with her family and friends. Loving died of pneumonia in 2008, at age sixty-eight, less than a month before her fiftieth wedding anniversary. She was survived by two of her children, Peggy Loving Fortune and Sidney, eight grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. Her eldest son, Donnie, died in 2000.

Over the years Loving was occasionally asked to participate in interviews but generally chose to decline, preferring to keep to herself. The Lovings' story was made into a television film in 1996 entitled Mr. and Mrs. Loving, though Loving said in interviews that most of the film was fabricated. In 2004 author Phyl Newbeck wrote the book Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers, which detailed the Loving case and its impact on national laws. Though Loving never celebrated the date of the historic court ruling after that day in 1967, in 2004 designer Ken Tanabe started a campaign, with a Web site and nonprofit organization, in an effort to make June 12 "Loving Day," a day to celebrate interracial couples and the legacy of Loving v. Virginia.

In 2007 as a number of media outlets ran stories on the Loving case to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Mildred Loving released a short press statement commenting on her role in history and her decision to challenge the state's objections to her marriage. Loving wrote:

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed what the judge said, that it was God's plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation's fears and prejudices have given way, and today's young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right 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.

Sources

Books

Newbeck, Phyl, Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Periodicals

Chicago Tribune, October 22, 1992.

The Economist, May 15, 2008.

Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2008.

New York Times, June 12, 1992; May 6, 2008.

The Times (London), May 19, 2008.

Village Voice, June 6, 2006.

Washington Post, May 6, 2008.

Online

"Groundbreaking Interracial Marriage," ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/Story?id=3277875&page=4 (accessed May 30, 2008).

Loving Day Official Site, http://www.lovingday.org/index.html (accessed May 30, 2008).

"Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)," June 12, 1967, http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=388&invol=1 (accessed June 12, 2008).

"Mildred Loving, Matriarch of Interracial Marriage, Dies," ABC News Online, May 5, 2008, http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=4787296 (accessed May 30, 2008).

Other

"Loving Decision: 40 Years of Legal Interracial Unions," All Things Considered, National Public Radio, June 11, 2007.

"Woman in Interracial Marriage Case Dies," All Things Considered, National Public Radio, May 5, 2008.

—Micah L. Issitt

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