Mildred Loving Followed Her Heart and Made History

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sometimes people just do things because they think they are the right things to do. Or, because they just want bothersome people to leave them alone. Not everyone wants to be on "Oprah" and write their memoirs, not even when they change history.

Consider Oliver L. Brown, a black pastor and railroad worker who joined a lawsuit in Kansas for his daughter to be able to go to a white school. Thus he became part of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 case that ended legalized segregation in America. When he died in 1961, the local paper mentioned his church, that he became ill during a trip to his in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary, that he was 42 -- and not a word about perhaps the most famous court case in the 20th century.

So we don't really know what to say about the passing on Friday of Mildred Loving (nee Jeter), she of Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia fame.

She and her husband, Richard, challenged for the right to marry interracially, won it in the famous U.S. Supreme Court case in 1967 that overturned miscegenation laws across the land and never wanted to be noticed again.

They didn't even attend the hearing on their case.

Lawyer Phil Hirschkop, then 28, in his opening statement before the Warren court that April day in that watershed season of American discontent:

"You have before you today what we consider the most odious of the segregation laws and the slavery laws."

It was still that time in America when people talked about "slavery laws."

The Lovings didn't pay attention to all that. He was a construction worker. She raised the kids. Sweeping social change, the last vestige of codified racism: That was for other people. They wanted to be left alone.

These days, June 12 is an informal holiday marked by interracial couples across the nation. It is called "Loving Day." The District recognized the day last year by official city proclamation. Ken Tanabe, the New York graphic designer who started the commemoration as a college thesis, says he tried to reach Mildred Loving on several occasions. He never got closer than her lawyers.

Trying to keep reaching her "seemed more an imposition than anything else," Tanabe said yesterday in a telephone interview. "They never wanted to be on the public face of anything."

Mildred Loving, in an interview with the Associated Press last year, on the merits of June 12: "Just another day. Sometimes I forget."

Well, briefly then:

She was 11 and nicknamed "Bean." He was 17 and didn't say much. They noticed one another in tiny Central Point, about an hour north of Richmond. There wasn't much to it then, and there isn't much to it now. But it was home, whites and blacks tended to mix more there than in other places in segregated Virginia, and the pair began to date.

She became pregnant at 17 or 18 -- the date is unclear in press recountings -- and the pair, fearing social ignominy for an unmarried pregnant woman (yes, children, that used to be a social stigma, too), drove up to the District to get married. She would always say that she didn't know they were being subversive; she only thought that Washington had less marital red tape.

Back home, they were rousted out of bed at 2 a.m. a few weeks later by a sheriff who carted them off to jail for "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth."

Court cases, victories, nine years.

And yet there wasn't much of a happily ever after.

Richard Loving died when a drunken driver plowed into their car in 1975. She lost an eye in the accident.

"Physically, it was pretty much downhill from there," said Bernard S. Cohen, the attorney who took their case from the beginning and helped argue it before the Supreme Court. Loving's life was neither pretty nor comfortable. Hollywood finally got around to making a movie about the marriage in 1996, Showtime's "Mr. and Mrs. Loving," starring Lela Rochon and Timothy Hutton. It was entirely for the money, Cohen said.

"She was very poor. I mean, poor. . . . We got her money for some siding for the cinder-block house that Richard put up with his own two hands. It got some dental work done. It was that kind of situation."

By the end, Loving, 68, had terrible arthritis. Cohen said that when he saw her on Friday a few hours before she died, "I didn't recognize her."

Her last hours were of very labored breathing.

None of this is fair, none of it is as it should be. Perhaps, all fairy tales aside, love doesn't conquer all or save anybody from anything that life and fate have in store.

But we never really want to think so; life is just too unhappy a picture for that. So maybe somewhere there is a love song left, something in a minor but romantic key, and Mildred and Richard Loving can have the floor to themselves in the half-light of memory. It would be merciful if, in the quiet of their passing, two people who changed so much and asked for so little were able to find one another once more.

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