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Mildred Loving and the Civil Rights Movement

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Mildred Loving died earlier this week. The Loving v Virginia Supreme Court Case is an important feature in the history of the Civil Rights movement. Interesting article about it in the Guardian:


Mildred Loving, a reluctant warrior in the US civil rights movement, has died at her home in Virginia aged 68. She made history with the aptly named supreme court case Loving v Virginia, in which she and her husband, Richard, challenged Virginia's law banning interracial marriage. Their 1967 victory struck down laws banning such unions in the 16 states in which such bans remained.

The ruling was unanimous, its opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said such laws - which existed in 41 states at various points - violated the constitution's equal protection clause: "We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race."

Mildred Jeter was born in Central Point, Virginia. Based on the laws at that time, Jeter, who was of African and Cherokee descent, was classified as "coloured". When she was still a teenager, she caught the eye of a young white man named Richard Loving. The pair began dating and in 1958, Mildred became pregnant. Interracial intimacy was not uncommon, but marriage was a different story since it was prohibited by law by the state of Virginia. Nevertheless, Richard asked Mildred to marry him.

He knew the state prohibited the couple from marrying, so he suggested they go to Washington, DC, where their union could be legalised. He was unaware that Virginia was so strongly opposed to interracial unions that they had an additional law which prohibited interracial couples from leaving the state to get married and then returning. The pair had been married for less than two weeks when the sheriff, his deputy, and the county jailer, which was the sum total of law enforcement in Caroline County, Virginia, entered the couple's unlocked home in the middle of the night.

Sheriff Garnett Brooks shone a flashlight in the face of the sleeping couple and demanded of Richard, "What are you doing in bed with that woman?" Mildred indignantly replied that she was his wife, and Richard pointed to their framed wedding certificate. "That ain't no good here," Brooks replied, and took the young couple to jail. Richard spent one night behind bars, but Mildred's status as "coloured" made it harder for her to raise bail, and she spent five nights in jail. The couple were found guilty of violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, which carried a maximum penalty of five years in jail, but Judge Leon Bazile offered to spare the couple jail time if they promised to leave the state and not return for 25 years. Not surprisingly, they chose banishment. They settled just north of the Virginia border in Washington, where their three children were born.

In 1963, while following the debates surrounding what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Mildred wrote a letter to the attorney general, Robert Kennedy, asking if there was anything in the proposed legislation that would allow her and her husband to move back to Virginia. Recognising that the law would not benefit the young couple, Kennedy suggested they contact the American Civil Liberties Union. When the Lovings met with their attorney Bernard Cohen, who would take their case all the way to the supreme court, he had to borrow office space in Washington, so the Lovings would not risk arrest by going to Virginia together.

Previous supreme court challenges to laws banning interracial marriage had failed, but, according to Philip Hirschkop, the other lead attorney on the case, in 1967 the time was right. Although the two attorneys summoned legal, sociological and anthropological arguments, the most poignant moment came when Cohen told the justices that Richard Loving had asked him to "tell the court I love my wife and it's just unfair that I can't live with her in Virginia".

After their win, the couple moved back to Central Point, where Richard, a mason, built a breeze-block home for the family. Tragedy struck when he was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Mildred and her sister Garnet were both injured in the accident. Mildred never remarried, and remained at the home Richard had built for her. She never considered herself a civil rights activist and, as the years progressed, became increasingly reclusive. "What happened, we really didn't intend for it to happen," she said in 1992. "What we wanted, we wanted to come home."

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