Mildred Jeter was born in the small town of Center Point, Virginia. Her mother was of mostly Native American descent, her father an African-American. Defying the segregation stereotypes, Center Point was a close-knit town where people of different races mingled freely. At age 11, Mildred met a 17-year old family friend named Richard Loving, who was white. She and Richard became friends, and then dated, and when Mildred became pregnant at age 18, they decided to marry. Because interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia, they travelled to Washington, D.C. and were married in June 1958.
A month after their marriage, the authorities cracked down on the Lovings. Sheriff’s deputies burst into their home in the middle of the night and arrested both Richard and Mildred Loving. Under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, their marriage certificate from D.C. was invalid, and their marriage a crime. 16 other states similarly banned interracial marriages.
After spending several days in jail, the Lovings accepted a plea bargain that suspended their prison sentences provided they did not return to Virginia together for 25 years. The Caroline County judge, Leon Bazile, pronounced:
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 moved to Washington, D.C., and raised three children. But they missed their hometown and their families, so in 1963 Mildred Loving wrote to the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, to ask for help. He referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The A.C.L.U. took the case, but it was a problematic one because the Lovings had pleaded guilty and had no right to appeal. Their lawyers asked Judge Bazile to set aside his original verdict. When he refused, they appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the lower court, and Loving v. Virginia went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. In an interview in the Washington Evening Star, Mildred Loving described their case simply as: “We loved each other and got married. We are not marrying the state. The law should allow a person to marry anyone he wants.”
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the Lovings. In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:
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 to surely deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of the law…There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.”
Vindicated, the Lovings returned to Virginia with their children. Richard Loving died in a car crash in 1975, in which Mildred was badly injured. She never remarried, and lived out her life surrounded by her family in rural Virginia. Mildred Loving rarely gave interviews about the landmark decision that bore her name.
But Mildred Loving came out for justice one last time before her death in 2008. In 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Loving decision, with America now aflame over the issue of gay marriage, Mildred Loving issued a statement that boldly declared her commitment to marriage rights for all Americans:
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.
For living her life with such dignity, for defying institutionalized racism, and for standing up not only for her own marriage, but for everyone’s right to marry who they love, we nominate Mildred Loving to the Harpy Hall of Fame.