On June 2, 1958, Richard Perry Loving and Mildred Dolores Jeter journeyed from their hometown of Central Point to Washington, D.C., to get married. What should have been a simple declaration of love turned into a living nightmare for the young couple for one simple reason: by the laws of the state of Virginia, Richard was "white" and Mildred was "colored."
Mildred and Richard had known each other for most of their lives. Their families lived about seven miles from one another in rural Central Point. Richard Loving was born in October 1933 to a young laborer and a housewife. Almost six years later, a 54-year-old tenant farmer and his 28-year-old wife, also a homemaker, became the proud parents of Mildred Jeter. When Mildred was 11, 17-year-old Richard began to take notice of her. Richard first started visiting Mildred's family farmhouse to hear her seven brothers play what she called "hillbilly music," but soon he was coming to see Mildred.
During the next few years, they became friendly, and eventually the relationship blossomed into romance. In Central Point, fraternizing between the races was not uncommon. However, as the young pair was soon to learn, dating was one thing but marriage quite another.
Mildred's heritage was a mixture of African and Cherokee. She was a slender woman called String Bean, or Bean for short. Richard was a gangly man of English and Irish heritage. He worked as a bricklayer, but virtually every spare moment was spent drag racing in a car that he co-owned with a black friend. Segregation meant that the two had gone to separate schools and attended different churches, but within the friendly confines of Central Point, Richard and Mildred found plenty of time for each other. When he was 24 and she was 18, Mildred became pregnant. They decided to marry.
It was Richard's idea to travel to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony. On a spring day in 1958, the couple headed north with Mildred's father and one of her brothers in tow as witnesses. They picked the name of a minister from a phone book and immediately after the ceremony, returned to Central Point.
Mildred did not realize that it was illegal for persons of different races to marry in Virginia. She thought that they were making the trip to Washington, D.C., because there was less red tape involved. In contrast to Virginia, the District did not require blood tests. Richard knew that they would be unable to obtain a license in Virginia, but he did not trouble his young bride-to-be with that information. What he did not know was that Virginia had taken its prohibition of intermarriage one step further. The state was one of several that specifically penalized couples who attempted to evade their anti-miscegenation laws by leaving to marry and then returning to live as husband and wife.
Richard and Mildred returned to Central Point with a framed marriage license. They started their married life living in the home of Mildred's parents, sleeping in the downstairs bedroom while Richard made plans to build a home for his new family. Meanwhile, word of the wedding reached local authorities, who were outraged that a white man had chosen a Negro bride.
On June 11, 1958, Justice of the Peace Robert W. Farmer issued arrest warrants to law enforcement officers of Caroline County at the complaint of the county prosecutor. Three policemen (the sum total of law enforcement officials in the county) entered the unlocked house in the dead of night and shone flashlights in Richard's and Mildred's faces.
Sheriff Garnett Brooks demanded of Richard what he was doing in bed with "that woman." Richard didn't immediately speak, so Mildred answered "I'm his wife." Richard pointed to the framed marriage license that they had hung on the wall. "That's no good here," said Brooks. The newlyweds were charged with unlawful cohabitation and taken to the jail in nearby Bowling Green.
The run-on statement of an indictment read:
[T]he said Richard Perry Loving, being a white person and the said Mildred Dolores Jeter being a colored person, did unlawfully and feloniously go out of the state of Virginia, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning to the State of Virginia and were married out of the State of Virginia, to-wit, in the District of Columbia on June 2, 1958, and afterwards returned to and resided in the County of Caroline, State of Virginia, cohabitating as man and wife against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.
On the advice of their lawyer, Frank Beazely, Richard and Mildred entered pleas of not guilty, but the court did not agree. At a grand jury hearing later in the year, forewoman Gladys Livermon brought formal charges against Richard and Mildred. Although they had the option of appearing before a jury, the Lovings waived that right because the facts were not in dispute, and they knew it was unlikely that a jury in Virginia would be sympathetic to their plight. As it turned out, neither was the judge. The Lovings pled guilty to the charge, and on January 6, 1959, Judge Leon Bazile pronounced the following sentence:
"The court doth accept the pleas of 'guilty' and fix the punishment of both accused at one year each in jail. The court does suspend said sentence for a period of twenty-five years upon the provision that both accused leave Caroline County and the State of Virginia at once and do not return together or at the same time to said county and state for a period of twenty-five years."
Bazile asked whether the couple had anything to say before final sentencing. Displaying the same rectitude that they maintained throughout their lengthy court battle, they did not.
Born and bred in the countryside, the Lovings were very unhappy in their exile. Mildred felt that the concrete of Washington, D.C., was no substitute for the open spaces of Caroline County. After their son Donald was hit by a car, the pair was even further convinced that they needed to go back to the country.
On the advice of her cousin, Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking him whether the new Civil Rights Act of 1964 would enable her family to move back to Virginia. Kennedy told her that the bill would not apply to her marriage, but he referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union and gave her the address of the Washington branch.
Mildred and Richard were clearly not aiming to change the world; they wanted only to be able to go home and visit their families occasionally. The letter was a plaintive cry for assistance.
I am writing to you concerning a problem we have. Five years ago my husband and I were married here in the District. We then returned to Virginia to live. My husband is White, I am part negro and part Indian. At the time we did not know there was a law in Virginia against mixed marriages. Therefore we were jailed and tried in a little town of Bowling Green. We were to leave the state to make our home.
The problem is we are not allowed to visit our families. The judge said if we enter the state within the next thirty years, that we will have to spend one year in jail. We know that we can't live there, but we would like to go back once and awhile to visit our families and friends. We have three children and cannot afford an attorney.
We wrote to the Attorney General, he suggested that we get in touch with you. Please help us if you can. Hope to hear from you real soon.
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Loving
An ACLU lawyer (and future Virginia Delegate), Bernard S. Cohen, filed a motion in late 1963 to vacate Bazile's guilty finding. Bazile stalled for months, until a federal panel forced him to rule again within 90 days. Bazile reiterated the couple's guilt: "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."
In March 1966, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld Bazile's decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Harry Carrico (a future chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court) suggested the Lovings might be "rehabilitated" by being allowed to return to Virginia and live apart, "contemplating the error of their way in going against God, nature and the traditions of the Commonwealth."
The U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously to take Loving v. Virginia. On June 12, 1967, they delivered a unanimous opinion in favor of the Lovings. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. … Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.
"These convictions must be reversed. It is so ordered."
"I feel free now," said Mildred, when told of the Supreme Court decision. The previous few years had been a difficult existence. Now a burden had been lifted. Facing the cameras in a short-sleeved, blue-flowered dress at the press conference hastily called to celebrate the verdict, Mildred truly looked as though a burden had been lifted. Richard, clad in an open-necked button-down white shirt, looked as though the conference was just one more ordeal that he had to go through. With his ruddy face and crew cut, he appeared profoundly uncomfortable, barely opening his mouth to answer questions.
Grudgingly, Richard told reporters that the hardest thing he had had to endure was leaving his home. In what may have been the only disagreement between the two, Mildred shook her head and said that the hardest part for her had been going to jail. As soon as they could, the couple moved back to Central Point, where Richard built a simple, cinder-block house just up the street from both of their parents, on Passing Road.
It would be gratifying to conclude that Mildred and Richard lived happily ever after, but that was not the case. While the couple was living in neighboring King and Queen County, a cross was burned in the yard of Mildred's mother. Mildred assumes it was meant for her. Another cross burning took place on the couple's lawn shortly after their initial return to Caroline County.
Less than a month after the Loving's 14th anniversary and slightly more than eight years after they had earned the right to live as husband and wife in Virginia, Richard was killed. The couple and Mildred's sister Garnet were returning from a visit with friends when their car was broadsided by a drunk driver who had run a stop sign on Route 721 in Caroline County, just 13 miles from their home. Richard, 42, died instantly, Mildred lost her right eye, and Garnet suffered minor injuries.
There was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy from the community for this woman who, not so long before, had been an exile from the state. Richard is buried in a mostly black graveyard just outside the local Baptist church. Even in death, he refused to be bound by the laws of segregation.
Today Mildred Loving is still, in the words of her friend, Professor Robert Pratt, "intensely shy and uncomfortable with accolades or recognition." The truth is that neither she nor Richard ever wanted publicity. They simply wanted to live together in the quiet town where they were raised.
Even now, in the 21st century, there are still those who believe that Richard and Mildred committed an act that should have remained illegal. In 1991, 20 percent of the white people interviewed stated that they believed that interracial marriage should be proscribed by law. While this is an improvement over the 40 percent who thought so in 1972, the numbers are still disturbing.
Although she may not seek recognition, Mildred still receives attention for her role in changing the law. She was recently awarded a human rights award by her church, St. Steven's Baptist Church in Central Point, where the preacher compared her to Rosa Parks. Mildred characteristically disagrees with the comparison. "What happened, we really didn't intend for it to happen," she says. "What we wanted, we wanted to come home." S
A graduate of Barnard College and New York Law School, Phyl Newbeck is a licensed attorney and the Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Specialist for the University of Vermont.