The Loving Story

Richard and Mildred Loving

1960s America was an era filled with questions and demands, figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were fighting for equality and basic rights. One question posed in the 60s was whether marriage was a fundamental right protected under the constitution. Richard and Mildred Loving, a quiet and unassuming couple from Virginia, became the champions for this right. Yet, the Loving’s were not Civil Rights activists, they merely wanted to live as husband and wife in the state they had always called home. Their story is not only about equal rights or segregation theirs is a love story.

Richard and Mildred Loving grew up together in Caroline County, VA. According to their daughter Peggy Loving Fortune, Mildred thought that Richard was arrogant for asking her out at first. Fortune stated that they were very affectionate people; you could tell that they were really in love. The Loving’s were married in 1958 in Washington D.C. Richard and Mildred were both very naïve about the depths of racism in the South and the lengths the government would go to to subjugate colored peoples.  Certainly the 1960s were not as bad for African-Americans as earlier decades but this was still before the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The Loving’s never believed they would be arrested for their marriage.

The Loving’s were proven wrong late one night when the police stormed into their home and arrested them. The police dragged Richard and Mildred out of bed and put them both in jail. Richard was bonded out the next day but Mildred was put in a jail that, according to Bernard Cohen, was “unfit for human habitation.” The Loving’s pled guilty to the charges they faced, for the police only needed their marriage certificate to prove their guilt. They were sentenced to one year in jail but the sentence was suspended for the next 25 years on the condition that they leave the state. The Loving’s moved to Washington D.C. and raised their three children in peace for the next few years.

At the time racism was a part of everyday Southern living, many people were raised to believe that whites were inherently better than any other race or ethnicity. In the HBO documentary “The Loving Story” one woman stated that she loved blacks that were proud of their skin and that blacks and whites were not meant to mix. Under the Racial Integrity Act it was a crime in Virginia (as well as 15 other states) for a white person to marry, cohabitate, or have relations with any person of color.

The Loving’s accepted their exile quietly until 1963. Mildred was tired of being kept from her home by a law that she didn’t believe was right. She said that it was “the principle of the thing.” The Loving’s had never planned to stay in D.C. Virginia was home and they were determined to get back to it. In 1963 Mildred wrote to then Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. Kennedy replied that she should appeal to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for help and soon the Loving’s had a lawyer and a case.

Bernard Cohen along with his partner Philip Hirschkop were put on the Loving’s case. Cohen grew up in Brooklyn, New York and at 16 he joined the ACLU. He went to college in New York and attended Georgetown Law School. With role models like Atticus Finch it was natural that he would go on to be a lawyer and fight for civil rights. When asked about his desire to work for the ACLU he replied, “I knew it was the right side.” Cohen began to work on the Loving’s case shortly after Mildred wrote to the ACLU.  He filed for an appeal with the original judge. It took Judge Basil six months to uphold his original ruling. He ruled that, “Almighty God had created the races… and He placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.”

Cohen and Hirschkop understood that they were dealing with a very significant case. This case was not just about the a couple from Virginia; it questioned the very constitutionality of antimiscegenation laws in several states. In 1967, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, Cohen argued that marriage was a fundamental human right protected under the constitution. On June 12 the Supreme Court unanimously declared that interracial marriage was legal.

Loving V. Virginia was a landmark Supreme Court case, equivalent to Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. This case, this fight for equal rights was typical of the 1960s. Many African-Americans were tired of being treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Richard and Mildred Loving made it easier for people to love whomever they wanted to, yet they were not champions of the Civil Rights Movement. It seems odd that such a private couple would agree to be the center of a Supreme Court. However, upon seeing them on film it becomes obvious that the love these two felt for each other would not allow them to accept a law that said they couldn’t be together. As their daughter stated, “It had to be love.”