The woman who helped legalize interracial marriageMildred Loving1939–2008
At 2 a.m. on July 11, 1958, three policemen burst into the bedroom of Mildred and Richard Loving in Central Point, Va. One of them demanded, “Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?” Mildred Loving said, “I’m his wife.” Her husband, a bricklayer, pointed to their marriage certificate on the wall. “That’s no good here,” came the reply. Because Richard was white, and Mildred was part black and part Native American, their union was illegal in Virginia. They challenged the law as unconstitutional, though, and nine years later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
The Lovings hadn’t intended to make headlines, said the Los Angeles Times. They had been married in Washington, D.C., five weeks before they were arrested, after Mildred discovered she was pregnant. “We were just happy to be together,” she said. The judge was unsympathetic, though he promised not to imprison them if they left Virginia for 25 years. “The Lovings spent several unhappy years in a cramped apartment in Washington.” In 1964, Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, “asking if the just-passed Civil Rights Act would help them return home.”
In a personal reply, Kennedy said no, but he urged the couple to challenge the Virginia law, said the Richmond, Va., Times Dispatch. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed to represent the Lovings, who “watched their case move through the legal strata of the Virginia court system, earning one defeat after another.” But on June 12, 1967, in a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren declared, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state.” The Lovings experienced a brief flurry of publicity: “Somebody burned a cross on their lawn. Life magazine visited and published a four-page photo spread. But the spotlight soon faded.”
Richard Loving was killed in an auto accident in 1975 and Mildred continued to live in their small, white cinderblock home, a mile and a half from where she’d been arrested. She rarely gave interviews and never considered herself a racial pioneer. “It was thrown in my lap,” she said of her ordeal. “What choice did I have?”