Last night I viewed the documentary, The Loving Story, a film about the interracial marriage of a white man, Richard Loving, and his wife, who was part Black, part Native-American, Mildred Loving. The one-night only screening was hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at the beloved local art-house cinema, Cable Car Cinema and Cafe.
I had heard of this couple, but only knew a few sketchy details of the problems they had as an interracial married couple back in the late 1950’s. Over the course of the movie, I learned much more about the legal details of their fight to legalize their marriage. But, what drew me in most, was getting to know Mildred and Richard as two people in love.
It is unbelievable to think about such a thing being able to happen as we ourselves in 2012 attend the wedding ceremonies of interracial couples, but in June of 1958, Richard and Mildred had to leave their home of Caroline County, Virginia to travel to Washington, D.C. in order to be legally married. Virginia, along with 21 other states in our country, still considered interracial marriage illegal.
Two weeks after they were married, and living back in Virginia, the local sheriff and his men barged into Mildred and Richard’s home while they slept, roused them up out of bed and arrested them. The Lovings were accused of miscegenation, or mixing of the races through interracial marriage, and evading the law by fleeing Virginia to marry in D.C. They were sentenced to one year in prison. In order to avoid jail time they took the offer to move out of Virginia to D.C., and would only be allowed to come back to Virginia separately to visit family and friends. Essentially, they were exiled, and with a suspended sentence, would not be able to come back to Virginia together for 25 years. This is how local Virginia Judge, Leon Bazile reasoned his case for sentencing the Lovings:
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 marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
The film goes on to show us Mildred and Richard seven years later, living in D.C. with their three children, and how at the suggestion of her cousin, she had written to Attorney General, Robert Kennedy to ask for his assistance. Mildred was terribly unhappy in the city setting of D.C. and homesick for her family and the rural life she enjoyed in Virginia. Kennedy wrote back saying that while he couldn’t help her, she should reach out to the ACLU, which Mildred did.
Two young ACLU lawyers just several years out of law school, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop took on the Lovings’ cause. Both lawyers had a feeling that they had in their hands what could turn out to be a monumental, historic civil rights case. What nobody could know initially, was how far they’d have to take their case, and how long it would take to get the desired outcome.
Luckily for us, a journalist who was in touch with the importance of the Loving’s story, spent a week with them in 1965, so there was a good deal of footage of them discussing their case as it was continuing to unfold over the course of many years of waiting.
This is where I fell in love with the Lovings. Mildred, who was 19 when they married, and twenty-six at the time of the filming, did most of the talking. She was, as her lawyers noted, very likable. Mildred was very warm, very soft-spoken, but yet firm in what she believed in. She expressed that she simply wanted to be able to be married legally to her husband, and most of all be able to live in her home state of Virginia, surrounded by her family and friends. Mildred was beautiful–her daughter recalled how Richard had taken to calling her Stringbean, and then simply Bean, for her tall, slender build. She had the kind of face that makes me say to myself, I wish I had her smile. I wish I had her eyes. Mildred lit up when she smiled. Her face showed you how much Virginia was home to her, how much she wanted to be there, and how much she loved Richard.
Richard, in contrast, barely spoke throughout the film. A tall, imposing figure, lawyer Philip Hirschkop, told of feeling intimidated when he first met Richard because he was .”..this big, strapping guy who looked like a typical Redneck with his crew cut…and literally a red neck.” I have to say I felt the same way, but it became clear to me, as it did to Hirschkop, that Richard loved Mildred. They were both so committed to each other and were not going to let their battles with the courts tear them apart. They both decided they would live in exile rather than divorce. Divorce was never a consideration for either of them.
After many years of the Virginia state and federal courts returning unfavorable decisions toward the Loving case, Cohen and Hirschkop appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and were elated when they found out the case would be reviewed in April of 1967.
While awaiting that court date journalists filmed white Southerner’s views of interracial marriage, and it was interesting to feel the reaction of today’s audience as we watched a well-dressed white woman in her early 60’s declare that the (paraphrasing)…”races should stay separate… I am proud to be white, and the Negros are proud to be negros…and I am thankful that my mother and father didn’t mix, or else I wouldn’t be the white person I am today…” That was the gist of it, and the mostly white audience laughed at her ridiculous statement. I wondered if we would have laughed 50 years ago, though. Now, we can see her remarks as insanity, as we did the footage also shown of a Klan member speaking of not mixing the races, and other whites doing the same. But during the civil rights era, all of this fear-based ignorance and hatred was all-too real, and dangerous. Back then, perhaps we would have squirmed in our seats. Hopefully, we would have spoken up on our beliefs that countered the woman’s who was proud her parents hadn’t mixed so she could stay white and pure.
The Lovings both decided not to attend the Supreme Court trial. Richard didn’t want to go, and Mildred didn’t want to go without him. When their lawyers asked Richard if he had anything he wanted to say to the court, he simply said, “Tell them I love my wife, and that is unfair that I can’t live with her in Virgina.”
On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings. Sixteen states then overturned their laws that had made interracial marriage illegal. While the Lovings didn’t consider themselves civil rights activists, they knew of the significance of their case. On this point Mildred had said, “we’re doing this for the principle of it, this is unfair, and we know it will help a lot of other people, and we are glad about that…”
I was happy for their hard-won victory, but what I hadn’t known, was that their time together as a legally married couple able to live in their home state of Virginia, was to last for only eight more years–one year less than it took to fight the courts for that right–because Mildred and Richard were in a car accident that involved a drunk driver, and Richard lost his life. The film went on to say that Mildred continued to live in Virginia surrounded by her family and friends until her death in 2008 at the age of 68 from pneumonia. In 2004, Mildred reflected back on the 40th anniversary of her historic case with this statement:
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.
Thank you Mildred and Richard Loving for showing all of us what true love is all about.