By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Mildred Jeter Loving, 68, a black woman whose refusal to accept Virginia's ban on interracial marriage led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1967 that struck down similar laws across the country, died of pneumonia Friday at her home in Milford, Va.
The Loving v. Virginia decision overturned long-standing legal and social prohibitions against miscegenation in the United States. Celebrated at the time, the landmark case sunk to obscurity until a 1996 made-for-television movie and a 2004 book revived interest in how the young, small-town black and white couple changed history.
A modest homemaker, Loving never thought she had done anything extraordinary. "It wasn't my doing," Loving told the Associated Press in a rare interview a year ago. "It was God's work."
Today, according to the Census Bureau, there are 4.3 million interracial couples in the nation.
That wasn't true in 1958, when then-17-year-old Mildred Jeter and her childhood sweetheart, Richard Loving, a 23-year-old white construction worker, drove 90 miles north to marry in the District. Pretty and slender, she was known by her nickname, "Bean," and she was already pregnant with the first of their three children.
Loving later said she didn't realize that it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to wed, although her husband might have. "I think he thought [if] we were married, they couldn't bother us," she said.
Nevertheless, when they returned to Central Point, Va., between Richmond and Spotsylvania, to set up their home, someone called the law.
Caroline County Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks rousted them from their bed at 2 a.m. in July 1958 and told them the District's marriage certificate was no good in Virginia. He took them to jail and charged them with unlawful cohabitation. They pleaded guilty, and Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced them to a year's imprisonment, to be suspended if they left the state for the next 25 years.
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix," Bazile ruled.
The Lovings moved to Washington in 1959 and lived with one of her cousins on Neale Street NE. They didn't like urban life and yearned to return to their rural roots.
Five years later, while visiting her mother, they were arrested again for traveling together. Loving, who had been following the 1964 civil rights legislation, wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to find out if the new law would allow the couple to travel freely. The couple was referred to the American Civil Liberties Union and assigned an attorney, Bernard S. Cohen. "It was a terrible time in America," said Cohen, who was at Loving's home when she died. "Racism was ripe and this was the last de jure vestige of racism -- there was a lot of de facto racism, but this law was . . . the last on-the-books manifestation of slavery in America."
With fellow attorney Philip J. Hirschkop, Cohen took the case to the high court. Cohen said the couple didn't understand the importance of the case to anyone other than themselves. "When I told them I thought the case was going all the way to the Supreme Court, [Richard Loving's] jaw dropped. He didn't understand why I didn't go to Judge Bazile and tell him they loved each other and they should be allowed to live where they wished," said Cohen, now a retired state delegate from Alexandria.
On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared: "There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. . . . There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause."
At a news conference at their attorneys' offices, the Lovings seemed stunned.
"I feel free now. . . . It was a great burden," Mildred Loving quietly said, according to news articles.
She and her husband returned to Caroline County, where they both were born. He built their house, and the couple settled there. Richard Loving was killed in 1975 when a drunk driver struck their car. Mildred Loving, who was also in the car, lost her right eye in the collision.
A 1996 Showtime movie about the case, "Mr. and Mrs. Loving," told their story. "None of it was very true," she said in 2007. "The only part of it right was I had three children."
Phyl Newbeck, a Vermont lawyer, saw the movie and wanted to read more about it. No one had written a book, so she sought out Loving for interviews but ran into the same shyness others had encountered. "She was very quiet. She really didn't like to talk about herself," Newbeck said yesterday. Newbeck's book, "Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers," was published in 2004. "To her death, she never felt she had done anything noteworthy. She never considered herself a pioneer."
Others did. Loving's church, St. Stephens Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Va., gave her a certificate recognizing the trailblazing lawsuit.
"The preacher at my church classified me with Rosa Parks," she told The Washington Post in 1992. "I don't feel like that. Not at all. What happened, we really didn't intend for it to happen. What we wanted, we wanted to come home."
A son, Donald Loving, died in 2000.
Survivors include two children, Peggy Fortune of Central Point and Sidney Loving of Tappahannock, Va.; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.