American civil-rights figure Richard Loving (1933–1975) was one of the litigants in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. A white man who married Mildred Jeter, an African-American woman, in defiance of current state laws banning interracial marriage, Loving was arrested and expelled from Virginia with his wife. The couple's efforts to challenge Virginia law eventually led to the 1967 court decision overturning all laws against interracial marriage.
A quiet man who tended toward shyness and disliked attention, Loving seemed an unlikely person to challenge the prevailing social conventions of the South. However, he did so when he formed a romantic attachment with a member of the neighboring Jeter family, who were of mixed Native-American and African-American heritage. Loving met Mildred Jeter while visiting her home to listen to her brothers play music, and the growing affection between the teenaged Loving and Jeter, six years his junior, initially attracted little notice. This would change when their youthful romance matured into a lifelong commitment.
When Jeter was 18, she became pregnant, and Loving proposed marriage. At that time, Virginia had a centuries-long history of legal opposition to interracial marriage that dated back to colonial times. The most recent state law against miscegenation—racial intermarriage—was the 1924 Racial Integrity Act. This law expressly forbade marriage between white Virginians and people of African-American or Native-American heritage. While Jeter was unaware of this law, Loving knew its provisions. To secure a legal marriage, he took his fiancée out of the state to Washington, D.C., where they wed on June 2, 1958. Wishing to spare his new wife any fears, Loving told her that marrying in Washington would save them time and trouble because of Virginia's requirement that couples complete blood tests before the wedding.
Loving believed, mistakenly, that Virginia law barred only the issuance of a marriage license to interracial partners, not the status of being part of an interracial marriage within the state's borders. In fact, Virginia State law placed penalties specifically on those who—like the Lovings—left the state to obtain a legal marriage elsewhere. Several weeks after returning to their home in Caroline County, the Lovings awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of police raiding their home. An anonymous source informed the local sheriff's office that the couple had married, and county officers obtained warrants for their arrests. Officers burst into the Lovings' bedroom and awakened them, then made the arrests after verbal confirmation from Mildred that the marriage had occurred.
Both Mildred and Richard Loving were briefly jailed in Caroline County. Loving was released on bail the following day, but his wife remained behind bars for several more days before being granted bail. Both husband and wife were convicted of violating laws against interracial marriage and given one-year prison sentences. However, the sentencing judge suspended their prison terms on the condition that they either live separately or depart the state for 25 years. Unwilling to break up their marriage, the Lovings reluctantly left their families in Virginia and relocated to Washington, D.C., where they lived with relatives.
The Lovings spent the next several years living in the nation's capital, and Richard crossed into Virginia each day to perform his job as a day laborer. Between 1958 and 1960, the Loving family expanded to include children Sidney, Donald, and Peggy. The family tried to maintain close ties to their relations in Caroline County, but the process was fraught with legal risk. On the advice of a lawyer who interpreted the order as barring the couple only from remaining in Virginia overnight together, the Lovings paid a visit to family in the spring of 1959. Husband and wife were arrested for violating the terms of their sentencing agreement.
Although neither of the Lovings was politically active or especially interested in the contemporary civil rights movement, Mildred believed that its promotion of social change could help their dilemma. She wrote to the office of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, describing their situation. Although Kennedy could not help the Loving family directly, his office responded to the letter with a suggestion that they contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). That organization worked to expand civil rights in part through legal action; for example, it had joined in the legal challenge in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public facilities some years earlier. The ACLU agreed to take on the Lovings' case as a means to challenge anti-miscegenation laws. Two young ACLU lawyers, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, began working with the couple to form a challenge to Virginia law.
Richard Loving hoped that his lawyers could secure them permission to live together in Virginia by negotiating with Caroline County judge Leon M. Brazile, who had required them to leave. He believed that his love for his wife and their desire to live quietly with their family showed that they were not troublesome law-breakers. Between 1963 and 1967, Cohen and Hirschkop fought to have the Lovings' conviction vacated so that the couple could return to Virginia. Their efforts were unsuccessful; Judge Brazile spoke harshly in his refusal, condemning interracial marriage as a practice against the natural order. Although Cohen and Hirschkop persisted in their efforts, higher state courts upheld Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws and the case attained national recognition. In 1966, Life magazine profiled Loving and his wife.
Although Cohen and Hirschkop had no previous experience arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, the High Court agreed to hear the Lovings' final appeal in April of 1967. In arguments, the lawyers asserted that Virginia's laws violated the constitutional protections of the 14th Amendment to equal protection under the law and due process of law, regardless of race. The Supreme Court was then headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a consistent supporter of civil rights protections, and it decided Loving v. Virginia unanimously in favor of the Lovings. “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” Justice Warren wrote in his opinion. “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” With this case, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all state laws banning interracial marriage and made it possible for Loving and his wife to return to their native Virginia as man and wife.
Speaking in 2016 to Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter, Hirschkop recalled the Lovings' immediate reaction to learning of their legal victory. “Bernie's secretary got them on the phone in his office. [Mildred] was a little more excited than I'd heard her previously. But I don't think [Richard] even got on the phone. We told them we had to have a press conference the next day—the ACLU was insisting on it, and I understand why. They didn't want to go …. They just wanted to be left alone to get on with their lives.” Both Lovings did appear at the conference, however, and they spoke plainly to the difficulties they had experienced in the preceding years. Throughout their remarks, a common theme shone through: these were not people seeking to bring about great social change, but simply a couple that wanted to live together and raise a family in peace.
After their hard-won legal victory, the Lovings returned to their rural Virginia community. Settling in Central Point, near both of their extended families, Richard Loving built the family a cinderblock home. Although they experienced some open opposition—white supremacists burned crosses on their property as well as that of Mildred Loving's mother—the couple lived quietly and sought to avoid publicity as they raised their three children.
Loving's time with his family was cut tragically short. On the evening of June 29, 1975, a drunk driver struck a car in which he, his wife, and his wife's sister were traveling near his home in Caroline County. The accident killed 42-year-old Loving instantly and left Mildred Loving with injuries to her right eye that caused permanent vision damage. Widowed, she never remarried and remained in Central Point until her death from pneumonia in 2008.
Although the Lovings did not set out to become civilrights icons—Richard Loving maintained throughout their struggle that they were compelled only by their desire to be married to each other—one practical effect of their court battle was to lay the groundwork for future civil-rights expansions. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage in the Obergefeld et al. v. Hodges ruling in 2015, it relied on the precedent set four decades earlier in Loving v. Virginia. “A first premise of the Court's relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Court's majority opinion. “This abiding connection between marriage and liberty is why Loving invalidated interracial marriage bans under the Due Process Clause …. Decisions concerning marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.”
The Lovings' struggle continued to capture popular interest long after the legality of interracial marriage was an accepted fact. A 2011 HBO documentary titled The Loving Story received critical acclaim and garnered prestigious accolades, including Emmy and Peabody awards. Five years later, in 2016, the events surrounding the couple's marriage and court case were dramatized in the feature film Loving. Starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in the title roles, the film garnered critical recognition for its sympathetic depiction of the couple as ordinary Americans seeking to overcome extraordinary barriers to simply live in peace. “It plucks two figures from history and imagines them as they once were, when they were people instead of monuments to American exceptionalism,” wrote Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “It was, the movie insists, the absolute ordinariness of their love that defined them, and that made the fight for it into an indelible story of this country.”
Newbeck, Phyl, Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving, Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Hollywood Reporter, November 4, 2016. New York Times, November 3, 2016.
Cornell University Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/388/1 (August 25, 2017), “Loving v. Virginia.”
U.S. Supreme Court, http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf (August 25, 2017), “Obergefell et al. v. Hodges.”□