United States — June 12 marked the 46th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage in the United States. For some of us, it may seem unfathomable that there was a time when it was illegal to marry someone because of the color of their skin, but this was the reality in many states less than 50 years ago.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia marks a milestone in the U.S. civil rights movement, but it is also the story of a real couple who fought for their union to be recognized so that they could live in peace and in love together legally, regardless of the color of their skin.
Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were born and raised in Virginia. In the mid 1960s, they fell in love and wanted to get married, but there was only one problem: he was white, she was black. Like many other states, Virginia had a law called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which prohibited marriage between people of different races. To avoid this roadblock, the couple traveled together to Washington, D.C. to legally marry.
After the Lovings returned to settle in Virginia, an anonymous tip spurred local police to raid their home in the middle of the night in an attempt to catch the couple having sexual intercourse, which was also illegal between members of different races. The officers found the Lovings asleep in bed and they were arrested. The officers also allegedly discovered the marriage certificate on their bedroom wall, which later became evidence for their alleged crime: “cohabitating as man and wife,” a felony punishable by a one to five year sentence in prison. The couple pled guilty to their “crime” and received a suspended sentence of one year – on the condition that they vacate the state of Virginia.
The couple then moved to Washington D.C., but faced many obstacles because racism was rampant everywhere. They were unable to secure their own property or travel together and they felt the agony of social isolation away from their family and home state. Finally, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General at the time, who referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ALCU took an interest in their case, appealed the Virginia Court’s decision, and the case eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court. Though the couple did not appear at oral arguments, Richard Loving sent a simple message to the Court through his attorney: ” … tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
The Supreme Court agreed with the Lovings and found that laws like the one in Virginia banning interracial relationships were unconstitutional. In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren described marriage as one of the “basic civil rights of man fundamental to our very existence and survival.” He stated, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides within the individual and cannot be infringed on by the State.”
At the time of this decision, 16 states had laws which banned relationships and marriages between interracial couples. Many of these laws and ordinances forbade relationships not only between whites and blacks, but between other ethnic groups including Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc. Thirteen years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, the Loving v. Virginia decision erased one of the final tenants and laws of a segregated society.
After the Supreme Court’s decision, the Lovings lived happily together for a short time until 1975, when Richard Loving was killed in a car accident. Mildred never remarried and passed away in 2008.