Mildred Jeter was just 18 years old when she fell for Richard Loving, a 24-year-old bricklayer and friend of her older brothers. At the time, neither Richard, who was white, nor Mildred, who was of African American and Native American descent, realized that the state of Virginia banned interracial marriages. They traveled to Washington DC, just 90 miles north of their hometown of Central Point, Virginia, because Mildred was pregnant and Washington, DC did not require a blood test. They were married there on June 2, 1958 and then returned home to Central Point to live with Mildred’s parents. At 2am on June 12, 1958, the sheriff and two deputies stormed the Jeter family home and found the newlyweds in bed together.
The story of racism in the United States does not begin with defining race but in recognizing the artificial nature of the boundaries between races. The Puritans believed enslavement was divine punishment for “heathens” and refused marriage between non-believers and (white) Christians. Virginia was the first colony to penalize interracial marriage in 1661, and subsequent amendments to the law increased the penalty from fines to jail time. In some colonies, white women who married slaves became slaves themselves, although no such law was in place for white men. By the 17th century, economics played a role in maintaining miscegenation laws. The children of one slave parent were considered slaves, because giving multiracial children legal rights as free citizens would have threatened the slave labor-based economy. After the abolition of slavery, segregation laws served similar social and economic functions by creating a second-class citizenship to preserve white supremacy.
The Lovings were arrested under the Racial Integrity Act, a 1920s reboot of a 17th century miscegenation law that banned marriage between whites and any non-white ethnic group. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act stated:
[Section 20-58] Leaving State to evade law. If any white person and colored person shall go out of the State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in Section 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this Stated. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.
[Section 20-59] Punishment for marriage. If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.
Police officials released Richard after he spent one night in jail; Mildred was detained for four days and was not allowed to post bail. In fact, Richard and Mildred were given completely separate hearings. Richard’s case was heard in July, but Mildred did not appear before the court until October. During this time, they were forced to live apart. By the time their case was tried in January 1959, the Lovings were the parents of a son named Donald. They were found guilty and were given a one year suspended sentence – under the condition that they leave Virginia for 25 years. They were allowed to visit individually, but would be arrested upon entering the state “together or at the same time.” The young family had no choice but to settle in Washington, DC.
After several years and two more children, the Lovings were weary of living fractured from their extended family. In June 1963, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for advice. She explained that her family could not afford an attorney, but “we would like to go back once in a while to visit our families and friends.” ACLU attorneys Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkopf took their case, but the judge denied the appeal, arguing God “placed them on separate continents “¦ The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” The Lovings’ appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia was denied as well, which pushed the issue to the US Supreme Court. When the Loving case finally appeared before the Supreme Court in 1967, 16 states enforced laws banning interracial marriages. Cohen told the Court:
“The Lovings have the right to go to sleep at night knowing that if should they 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 anti-miscegenistic scheme of Virginia is found unconstitutional.”
On June 12, 1967, on the ninth anniversary of the night Mildred and Richard Loving were taken from their home and incarcerated for the crime of being married to one another, the US Supreme struck down Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. The fifteen remaining state miscegenation laws were also voided, and the Loving family moved back to Central Point. Richard continued to support the family as a bricklayer, Mildred was a stay-at-home mom, and neither courted the limelight. On June 12, 2007, the fortieth anniversary of the Court’s ruling, Mildred Loving, now a 68-year-old widow and grandmother of eight, released this statement:
“When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married. We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom “¦ 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. I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”