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Loving vs. Virginia: The interracial couple that helped eliminate anti-miscegenation laws still on the books in 1967

Stefan Andrews
Getty Images

Anti-miscegenation laws and regulations in the United States were established in its earlier colonial period, and unsurprisingly, they only encouraged further racial segregation, particularly at the level of intimate relationships.

As a consequence, interracial marriage, and sometimes even couples of different races having sex, was considered a crime. These forms of restrictive legislation were abolished at one point by the Republicans, reimposed by the Democrats, and by 1967, 16 states in total, most of which were in the South, kept the controversial laws on the books.

What neither political party had repealed was achieved by one couple and their efforts to break all legal barriers to obtain their basic human right to marriage. That was the story of Mildred Delores Loving, who was an African-American with Native American ancestry, and Richard Perry Loving, who was white.

Their story began in 1958. With the couple expecting their first child, they needed to travel from their home state of Virginia to Washington, D.C., to get married. That way, the Lovings sought to evade Virginia’s so-called Racial Integrity Act, active since 1924, and one that did not allow marriage between blacks and whites. People even ended up in prison for breaching this act.

Reportedly, someone from Central Point, the small Virginia town where the couple lived, had informed the local police about their new relationship status. It may sound unbelievable, but on the morning of July 11, 1958, police officers broke into their home with hopes of catching them having sex. Perhaps to the utter disappointment of the officers, Mildred and Richard were found only asleep in their bedroom.

Following an interrogation, Mildred showed them the certificate that proved their status of being married, after which the officers claimed that such a paper was invalid in their home state. That’s how they were accused of breaking Section 20-58 of the Virginia code, which did not allow couples from different races to get married elsewhere out of this state only to come back and then reside there. They were further accused of breaking other legislation that suggested their marriage was a criminal act. The punishment of such “crimes” usually resulted in imprisonment of up to five years.

In January of the following year, the Lovings were charged with “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth,” and thus were confined to “only a year” in imprisonment. A way out of jail was that they would both leave the state and not come back for a minimum of 25 years. The Lovings opted for the second option, so they relocated to Washington, but that was not the end of the story.

In their new home, the couple felt isolated and lived on a tight budget, but they were also frustrated by not being able to go together and see their families back home in Virginia. So Mildred had decided to write a letter complaining to the then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brother of President John Kennedy. This then went to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which put some pressure on the local Virginia court to reconsider their charges on the Lovings.

After a year of waiting, the Lovings received the following answer from the court, “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 Lovings did not stop here in their quest for equal rights and, still backed by the ACLU, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

They were unable to attend the hearings in Washington, but their lawyer, Bernard S. Cohen, represented them. Cohen had also assured them that the court would hear Richard Loving’s message, a simple and humble one, “Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”

On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Lovings’ conviction following a unanimous vote. The court had ruled that the Virginia anti-miscegenation enforcements breached the Due Process Clause as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which since 1868, had provided that no state should deny any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.”

The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State,” was also what Chief Justice Earl Warren, the 14th Chief Justice of the United States, had expressed as part of his opinion for the unanimous court.

The court’s conclusion was that the Virginia law was nothing but racist and that it was only set to continue white supremacy, part of it reading, “The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.”

In popular culture, June 12th has come to be known as “Loving Day” across the United States, an annual unofficial celebration of marriages among people of different races.

As for Mildred and Richard, unfortunately, they were in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver in Caroline County, Virginia, in 1975. Tragically, the crash was fatal for Richard, who lost his life, aged only 41. Mildred lost her right eye in that same accident but had survived and lived until 2008, when she died of pneumonia, aged 68. She was survived by their three children: Donal, Peggy, and Sidney.

Several films have depicted their astounding story, the final one being released in 2016 and starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as the Lovings.

Read another story from us: The real Titanic love story of Ida and Isidor Strauss

The film was nominated for dozens of awards, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for Edgerton and Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Negga.