How Mildred and Richard loving defeated the ban on interracial marriage
A Mighty Girl
One morning in 1958, the county sheriff and two deputies burst into Mildred and Richard Loving’s bedroom in Central Point, Virginia. Their crime? Mildred was black and Richard was white; the couple had broken Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, which criminalized interracial marriages. The couple decided to fight the ban, becoming plaintiffs in a milestone civil rights case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the court sided with the Lovings in their unanimous decision on June 12, 1967 after a nine-year legal battle, the historic ruling overturned bans on interracial marriage in 16 states. Fifty years after the historic change they brought about, the Lovings’ granddaughter, Eugenia Cosby, succinctly summed up the lesson they taught the world: “If it’s genuine love, color doesn’t matter.” Mildred Loving was born Mildred Jeter in 1939 in Central Point, Virginia, and was of African American and Native American descent. She met Richard Loving, who was white, while she was in high school. They married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but returned home to Virginia to begin their married life — not knowing that their marriage was criminal in their home state. Early one morning that same year, while the Lovings were sleeping, police burst into their bedroom. One of the policemen asked Richard, “Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?” Mildred replied, “I’m his wife,” while Richard pointed to their wedding certificate hanging on the wall. The sheriff told them, “That’s no good here.” The Lovings had broken Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, and plead guilty to violating the law. In 1963, Mildred wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to ask for his help fighting the ban. Kennedy referred her to the ACLU, and the ACLU accepted their case. The milestone case Loving v. Virginia went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings, asserting that the Virginia Racial Integrity Act violated both the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment. The decision overturned the ban in Virginia and 15 other states that still prohibited interracial marriage. “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual,” the judgement read, “and cannot be infringed by the state.”
Mildred and Richard moved back to Central Point with their three children after the Supreme Court decision. Tragically, Richard was killed by a drunk driver only a few years later in 1975.
Mildred remained a quiet but fervent civil rights advocate until her death in 2008. The Lovings’ legacy is a powerful one: today, one in six newlyweds in the United States has a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, a fivefold increase from when the Lovings won their court case over fifty years ago. “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,” Mildred Loving wrote in a statement for the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision. “I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”