Mildred J. Loving: Trailblazer for Legalized Interracial Marriage
In 1964, Mildred Jeter Loving took the first step in fighting the Virginia state law banning interracial marriage. Mildred’s initiative led to the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment. This Supreme Court civil rights decision abolished all race-based restrictions on marriage (or anti-miscegenation laws) in all states. In addition to Virginia, 15 other states had laws against mixed marriages.
Mildred — a woman of black and Native American heritage — and Richard Loving, a white man, were both born in Virginia; they fell deeply in love yet weren’t allowed to marry in their home state. Instead, they tied the knot in Washington, D.C., in June 1958. The Lovings returned home and settled in Central Point, Virginia. Just a few weeks after their wedding, the police burst into their bedroom in the middle of the night and arrested them. They pled guilty, and each received a one-year jail sentence. Plea bargaining resulted in a suspended sentence — if they agreed to leave the state and not come back together for 25 years. The Lovings took the deal, moved to Washington, and started a family.
Five years later, Mildred and Richard were missing their family and friends, facing financial difficulties, and still experiencing discrimination despite their legal marriage in Washington. Fed up with their forced exile and spurred on by the growing Civil Rights movement, Mildred sought help by writing to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In his reply, Kennedy directed them to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which took their case.
In November 1963, ACLU lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop began a four-year battle that took them from the state trial court to the U.S. District Court, and then to Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals. The Lovings’ case was denied each time. It was time to approach the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted their case in December 1966.
On April 10, 1967, Cohen told the Court the following:
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.
In a unanimous decision on June 12, 1967, the high court decided in favor of Mildred and Richard Loving. In its ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote this:
Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. . . . To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. 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.
The Lovings and their three children moved back to Virginia, no longer guilty of the crime of being married.
Richard Loving was killed by a drunk driver on June 29, 1975. Mildred Loving died on May 2, 2008, of pneumonia.