By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
Fifty years after Richard and Mildred Loving were married and forty-one years after the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law that criminalized their union, Mrs. Loving has died.
Mildred was not an activist, nor even a particularly outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement, but she did something indisputably heroic: She stood up to Virginia and an entire region of this country permeated by racism and demanded her right to marry the person she loved.
Richard was white and Mildred was black. They wed legally out of state, but violated Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute when they came back to Caroline County, where they had first met.
The Caroline County judge who in 1959 found them guilty of violating the Virginia Racial Integrity Act, wrote, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Racially mixed, Richard and Mildred were banned from Virginia and risked jail if they returned.
For those of us who grew up in the segregated South in the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of bigoted reasoning from a rural county judge was not terribly shocking. But there will never be an excuse for the disgraceful ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court that followed.
In 1965, Virginia’s finest legal minds, many educated in Virginia’s best schools, upheld the ban on interracial marriage, citing an earlier case in which they said the state was obligated “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens” and to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride.”
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court -- only one hundred miles up the road from Richmond, but worlds apart from the Southern ethos that dominated the Virginia judicial system -- saw it differently. The high court had given us Brown v. Board of Education a decade earlier and was poised to strike again in the name of racial equality.
Loving v. Virginia was in the right place at the right time, and in 1967 the Supreme Court ruled that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law --and similar laws in the other Southern states -- was unconstitutional.
But it might never have happened, at least not here anyway, if U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had not referred Mildred Loving to the ACLU after she asked for help. The ACLU contacted Bernie Cohen, a young Alexandria attorney, who agreed to take the case, despite being concerned that he was not prepared for the monumental task before him. Cohen was later joined by another Alexandria attorney, Phil Hirschkop, who was only two years out of law school.
Working as volunteers for the ACLU and representing the Lovings without charge, the two young attorneys took the case all the way to its inevitable conclusion.
Mildred often claimed that she did not have any idea of the significance of what she was doing. She merely wanted both to be married to Richard and to live in the community where she was raised and had friends and family. But having grown up in Virginia, she had to know that the task the couple had taken on was akin to moving the old air out of the state and replacing it with new air.
Important things happen in different ways in this country. There are full blown movements that gather momentum and force change through the making of new laws. The women’s suffrage movement that led to the Nineteenth Amendment and the civil rights movement that brought us the Civil Rights Act of 1964 come to mind. Then there are carefully planned lawsuits, years in the making, like the aforementioned Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public schools.
But sometimes it is just individuals who will not take no for an answer who propel us forward. Mildred and Richard Loving wanted to be married and to live in Virginia. She contacted the Attorney General of the United States, who contacted the ACLU, which contacted a couple of wet-behind-the-ears attorneys in Virginia…and history was made.
Surely we are headed toward more progress in the United States. Someday soon, for example, the Supreme Court or Congress will grant equal rights to gays and lesbians. There is a wonderfully organized movement for gay and lesbian rights. There are legal groups planning the next case to move the gay and lesbian rights agenda forward. And then there may just be another Richard and Mildred Loving who decide on their own that it’s time for them to challenge the discriminatory laws that so unfairly hold them down.
Anyone who doubts the ability of a few individuals to make change need look no further than Mildred and Richard Loving. Richard died in 1975, but Mildred lived long enough to serve for forty years as a living reminder of what individuals with courage and strength can accomplish, not just for themselves, but for all of us.