This month marks the 50th anniversary of a significant but often overlooked moment in American history. On June 12th, 1967 the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned a lower court decision upholding a Virginia state law that made interracial marriage a crime. The plaintiffs in the case were Richard Loving, who was white, and his wife Mildred, an African-American/Native American. The couple had gotten married in 1958 in Washington DC, where such unions were legal. They subsequently returned to their native state of Virginia, where they took up residence at the home of Mildred’s parents.
Five weeks after their wedding the couple was in bed at home when, at two o’clock in the morning, the sheriff of Caroline County and two of his deputies burst into their bedroom, leveled flashlights at the couple, and demanded of Richard, “Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?”
The sheriff responded to Mildred’s reply (“He’s my husband”) by telling the couple their District of Columbia marriage certificate wasn’t recognized by the state of Virginia. They were subsequently arrested, jailed and charged with unlawful cohabitation. At the time one- third of the 48 United States, including Virginia, had laws on the books prohibiting interracial marriage.
Ultimately the Lovings pleaded guilty to violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act and were given a year in prison, a sentence that would be suspended if they agreed to leave their home state and not return together for the next 25 years. Presiding judge Leon Bazile stated in his decision: “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.”
Initially the Lovings moved to Washington DC to avoid jail time, but were unhappy living away from their families, and in a setting far different from the rural one in which both had grown up. They would travel separately to visit friends and family in their hometown of Central Point, VA, but were justifiably unhappy with their situation. Finally in 1964 Mildred wrote to United States attorney general Robert Kennedy asking if the just-passed Civil Rights Act would help them. Kennedy responded that it would not, but the justice department referred the couple to the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to represent them free of charge.
The case of Loving vs. Virginia bounced between several federal and state courts for three years before the Virginia Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the original judge’s decision, reaffirming the legality of the state’s miscegenation laws. The Lovings and their attorneys then turned to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear their final appeal. On June 12, 1967 the court unanimously decided in their favor, and by doing so effectively struck down the nation’s last legally sanctioned segregation statutes requiring separation of races in marriage. The couple neither sought nor claimed to be reformers; Richard and Mildred both simply wanted to be able to legally marry the person with whom each was in love.
It would be nice to say the Lovings lived happily ever after, but their story is bittersweet. In 1975 their car was broadsided by a drunk driver who had run a stop sign. Richard was killed in accident; his wife’s injuries included the loss of her right eye. Mildred Loving lived quietly in her hometown until she died at age 68, precisely one month before what would have been the 50th anniversary of her marriage to the man about whom she said, “He was my support, he was my rock.”
Mrs. Loving shunned attention, and rarely gave interviews. However, in a statement she issued on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, she urged the powers that be to legalize same-sex marriage.
Neither Richard nor Mildred Loving ever believed they were remarkable, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t think so.
There is not yet a commonly recognized commemoration of the decision 50 years ago that effectively ended state-endorsed prohibition of interracial marriage.
But “Loving Day” sure sounds like a holiday everyone would look forward to celebrating.
Which is appropriate, because we all should.
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