Richard Loving met Mildred Jeter in 1955. They fell in love. When Mildred became pregnant in 1958, the couple went to Washington, D.C. and got married. They went to Washington because it was illegal for the couple to wed in Virginia, their native state. It was illegal because Mildred was black and Richard was white.
Richard and Mildred lived in rural Caroline County. There were other inter-racial couples in the area. No one much bothered or cared about backwoods Virginia at the time. “People had been mixing all the time,” said Mildred. But since the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954, Southern state governments had sworn “massive resistance” to changes in their race laws. The Lovings were selected as an example.
One month after their wedding, the Lovings were awakened in the middle of the night by a flashlight shining in their eyes. Sheriff Garnett Brooks and two deputies stood in their bedroom. “What are you doing in bed together?” the sheriff demanded. “I’m his wife,” said Mildred. “We’re married,” said Richard and gestured to the framed marriage certificate on the wall. “Not here you’re not,” said Sheriff Brooks and the Lovings were taken to jail.
Richard was released the next day. Mildred was held for two more days. The couple was brought before Judge Leon Bazile. The Lovings had broken Virginia’s Racial Integrity Law of 1924:
It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this chapter, the term `white person’ shall apply only to such person as has no trace whatever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons. All laws heretofore passed and now in effect regarding the intermarriage of white and colored persons shall apply to marriages prohibited by this chapter.
Every person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood shall be deemed and taken to be a colored person, and every person not a colored person having one fourth or more of American Indian blood shall be deemed an American Indian; except that members of Indian tribes existing in this Commonwealth having one fourth or more of Indian blood and less than one sixteenth of Negro blood shall be deemed tribal Indians.
If a couple married in another place and then moved to Virginia, they were deemed to have broken the law. There was a 1 to 5 year prison sentence for those found guilty.
The Lovings were convicted but cut a deal with the judge: they would leave Virginia and not return for twenty-five years and thus avoid jail terms. Richard and Mildred moved to Washington.
The Lovings were country people; they hated the city. They tried visiting their families after the court decision and were arrested. After that, they sneaked back home one at a time. Richard kept hidden whenever he returned. One day, one of the Loving children was hit by a car. That was the final straw for Mildred; she had to get her family out of the city. She wrote to Attorney-General Robert Kennedy who referred her case to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Two young civil rights lawyers took up the Loving case in 1963. They liked Mildred but were suspicious of blunt, taciturn Richard who they thought looked like a redneck, which, of course, he was.
The legal team first appealed the conviction to Judge Bazile who not only upheld his previous judgement but made the following statement:
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 case was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court and lost, then it went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Richard and Mildred hated publicity and stayed at home while their lawyers argued. Richard told them, “You tell the Court that I love my wife.” The lawyers did and they won, thus overturning laws against inter-racial marriage in fifteen states.
Besides legal matters, there were other problems for the Lovings. Richard’s mother had been opposed to the marriage, but she had to accept it. In the great cultural wars of humanity, the battlefields are people’s living rooms.
The Lovings stayed married until 1975 when a drunk driver ran into their car and Richard was killed. Mildred never re-married. “I only loved one man in my life,” she said, “And I married him.”