43 years ago today the Supreme Court handed down a decision that changed the nation. It was the case of Loving vs Virginia, and while the case is important, the story behind the case is a testimony to the power of love. The Lovings, simply Richard and Mildred, changed the heart of a nation.
Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving grew up in Caroline County, Virginia. They met when he was 17and she was 11, they later started to date and eventually fell in love . When Mildred was 18 she became pregnant, and they decided to marry. In June of 1958 ,the laws of Virginia at that time forbade their union, because Richard was white and Mildred was black. However, interracial marriage was legal in Washington, DC, so they simply drove to DC for their wedding ceremony,and then returned to Virginia to begin their life together. The solution seemed so simple then…
However, the state of Virginia did not see it that way, as their law was not limited to interracial ceremonies in Virginia, the law banned ceremonies elsewhere. When the police learned of the union, one evening while they were asleep, the newlyweds were awakened by the police barging into their bedroom to arrest them. The Lovings were taken to jail and held until they could post bail for the crime of being married.
When the trial came, they were of course found guilty and were sentenced to 1-3 years in jail. At their sentencing the judge told the Lovings he would suspend the sentence if they agreed to leave Virginia for 25 years. The Lovings took the judge’s offer and moved to DC. It was not easy in DC, they were separated from family, faced discrimination, had a hard time renting property and life was hard. Their family was growing and life was growing increasingly more difficult, in desperation Mildred penned a letter to Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States. That letter was forwarded to the ACLU and they took interest in the case.
The case made its way through the justice system and denied over and over again. While the case worked its way through the courts, Mildred in an interview with the Washington Evening Star stated: “We loved each other and got married. We are not marrying the state. The law should allow a person to marry anyone he wants.” In the same interview Richard stated: “They said I had to leave the state once, and I left with my wife…” If necessary, I will leave Virginia again with my wife, but I am not going to divorce her.” Finally on June 12 1967, after nine long difficult years, the Supreme Court handed down their unanimous decision granting Mildred and Richard the right to live together, as husband and wife, in their home state of Virginia. The words of Chief Justice Earl Warren declared: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides within the individual and cannot be infringed on by the State.” The ruling struck down laws banning racially mixed marriages in at least 17 states.
Richard Loving died at age 41 in 1975, when a drunken driver struck their car. Mildred lost her right eye in the same accident. In May of 2008, Mildred died of pnuemonia at the age of 68. On the 4oth anniversary of the decision in June of 2007 Mildred Loving issued a statement and in closing she stated:
“My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone, they have a right to marry.
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.”
All they wanted to be was simply Mildred and Richard, yet their love and courage changed the heart of a nation. June 12 has become known as Loving Day and there are celebrations planned around the country. Simply Richard and Mildred were more than just the Lovings, they were the loving kind!
Photo Credits: NY times and Associated Press