A new film tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple that took their fight for equality all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
By: Linnea Crowther
1 year ago
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving did a daring thing: They got married. It's something that millions of people in the U.S. do every year, but for the Lovings, it wasn't as easy as setting a date and picking out rings. In their home state of Virginia, their love was a felony.
Mildred Jeter was African-American, and Richard Loving was white, and in the state of Virginia – as well as 23 other states at that time – interracial marriage was illegal. Some parts of the U.S. had removed their antimiscegenation laws in the years preceding, so the Lovings traveled to nearby Washington, D.C., to tie the knot before returning home to Virginia. In the middle of the night, local officials raided their home and arrested them on the charge of living together unlawfully as man and wife. They were convicted, and both spent a year in prison.
After serving their sentences, the Lovings moved to D.C. but continued to be frustrated at not being able to travel safely to Virginia to visit family, so they took their story to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU helped them bring suit against the state of Virginia in a case that would escalate all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, overturning their convictions as well as decreeing that all state laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
With a new biopic "Loving" opening soon, a new generation will learn about Mildred and Richard and this not-so-distant piece of America's history. Nowadays, we all but take interracial marriage for granted, and if you ask any class of high school students what they know about the Lovings, you're likely to get a lot of blank stares. But the Lovings – their Supreme Court case, and their love and determination – have had a profound effect on our society.
To learn more about the legacy of the Lovings, we interviewed people currently in interracial relationships. We talked to 13 people – some married, some with committed partners – about their experiences and the impact the Lovings have had on them.
Some of what we heard paints a picture of a nation that has taken its time adjusting to the high court's decision. Indeed, the story Rebecca told us happened in a state that didn't get around to formally changing its antimiscegenation law until 2000: "When we got married in 1999, we got married in Massachusetts, but Dereck was from Alabama, and we had both been living there. Technically, we were still illegal in Alabama because the constitution wasn't amended until 2000. We tell our kids we were rebels." Alabama was the last of the states to comply with the Loving v. Virginia ruling.
Nancy met resistance when she began dating her future husband: "Frankly, people made our lives miserable. I had all of my tires slashed, notes under my dorm door threatening me with harm and even death, calls at all hours of the day and night, calling me unmentionable names for being involved with an African-American man. And this was in 1987!!! So much for progress."
Catherine's eyes were opened when she heard the thoughts of her family and friends about her relationship: "My parents and others in the homogenous community I was raised in all would say things like, 'What about the children?' and, 'Why make marriage any harder than it has to be?' Valid questions by themselves, but based in a privilege that assumes that problems are not 'ours' to own as white people. Racism is someone else's problem."
The negative stories stood out, but they didn't overshadow the positive, hopeful stories that some had to tell. Nancy noted the joy she feels teaching a generation that's unfamiliar with the Lovings: "When I'm teaching my classes now, it's surprising to me that my freshmen students don't remember or even know about a time when it was illegal to be in an interracial relationship/marriage. They are shocked and outraged, which is pretty gratifying."
Rebecca told us about how her marriage helped heal a hurt: "Before we got married, we were working in a housing project in Birmingham. We had been there for at least two years. One of the women (she was black) really had trouble with the two of us getting married. She loved each of us but did not feel comfortable with our engagement. She did some soul searching and shared with us her journey of accepting us and the issues she had with white people because of how she was treated growing up. We never intended for our marriage to help people heal from some of the longtime hurts they had been carrying, but it did."
Lamaretta remembered how easy it was for her to fall in love: "Growing up I never really contemplated dating, never mind marrying, outside of my race. I met my husband in grad school, and funny thing, when we fell in love, I wasn’t the least bit surprised or hesitant. That is what Loving did for me. It gave me the freedom to be unafraid to fall in love, to love and be loved no matter what race or ethnicity my spouse turned out to be. We had so much in common that our races didn’t matter to us, and we were lucky enough to be born in a time when it didn’t have to be a barrier to our relationship."
Taylor reflected with joy on the baby she's expecting: "I’ve been with my boyfriend for about two years, and we have a baby on the way. The baby will be Native American, German, Sicilian, and black. That’s a pretty large melting pot, and I’m really proud of it. … I’m happy that I don’t have to worry about how my son will be treated because of the tone of his skin."
Tom, who is in an interracial same-sex marriage, noted the precedent that Loving v. Virginia set for Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that led to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage: "It paved the way for marriage equality in a very real way. You can draw a straight line from the idea that every person should have the right to choose their own spouse, to the gender of that spouse being irrelevant."
We finished up our interviews by asking each person what they would say to the Lovings if they could. The words on everybody's lips were, "Thank you."
"Thank you for your bravery. Thank you for standing up for love."
"Thank you for your bravery and I’m sorry it was necessary."
"I would give them a hug and thank them for being so courageous in a time when America so desperately needed someone to step up and do what needed to be done."
"Thank you for staying strong and loving each other at a time when many would sacrifice their relationship to avoid the strife and persecution that you encountered and fought against."
"I would thank them, but I would want to hear about their lives. How they endured when the legal system took something so simple (love) and made it so complicated (police, laws, being banished). I am proud of them for holding on to each other and their family, above all else."
"I think we would both want to express our gratitude for their strength and conviction in fighting for not just their rights, but also for the rights for interracial couples across the country."
"I don't think there's anything much I'd want to say to them; I think folks hassled them enough. It's ridiculous to go to jail because you married someone. I might send them some baked goods, though. And maybe a card that says, 'Thank you for providing the legal foundation to live my life the way I want to.'"
"I would thank them both for everything they went through and express the deepest of gratitude for them."
"I would tell them thank you for loving each other, and thank you for standing up for what was right and equal, and thank you for not being afraid to put yourself out there and not change your mind about who you love."
"I would thank them for their courage and their example."
"I would thank them for their courage and warmly embrace them because they have moved things forward with their love and I applaud them for that."
"I would absolutely LOVE to know them today if I could! I would simply say, 'Thank you! Thank you for being true to yourselves and your ideal of what made a good marriage – being with your partner and best friend and true love. Thank you for being willing to do the work of fighting an unfair legal situation – making the sacrifice that clearly was more of a benefit to couples in the future than your own well-being and protection of your own privacy. I respect you for what you did and for being as normal and real as you were.'"