The bond between Mildred Jeter, a black and Native American woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, was solid and true. They wanted to get married and live close to family and friends. But in 1958, weeks after their marriage in Washington, D.C., police burst into the couple’s Central Point, Va., home, pulled them out of bed and threw them in jail. They were found guilty of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law and faced with a choice: Go to prison or into exile.
The homesick couple lived an unhappy big city life in Washington, sneaking home to visit and so their children could be delivered by Richard’s mother, a midwife. Mildred Loving wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy requesting his help, and he led them to the American Civil Liberties Union. Two young Virginia lawyers took the Loving case all the way to the Supreme Court, which in June 1967 struck down the bans on interracial marriage that still stood in 16 states.
“Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in that unanimous decision. “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.”
It’s appropriate that the “The Loving Story” airs on HBO on Valentine’s Day. The images in clear archival footage and photographs reveal just how ordinary this extraordinary couple was: They relax on the couch – his head in her lap -- and hold each other’s hand. The children that opponents of interracial marriage in the film label as “victims” and “martyrs” play happily.
“They were very loving, very caring, very determined,” remembered Peggy Loving, the only daughter and only survivor of the couple’s three children. She said her parents were “very eager to do what they needed to do to get us back to Virginia, and to be able to live their lives — to live a happy life.”
Now 52, she didn’t know what was going on at the time, except that “people were there taking pictures.” Eventually reality hit, particularly when “the KKK burned a cross in my grandmother’s [Mildred’s mother’s] yard.”
I spoke on the phone with Peggy Loving and with Nancy Buirski, the documentary film’s director, producer and writer. Buirski, the founder of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, was looking to make her first film when she read Mildred Loving’s obituary in the New York Times in 2008.
“I was so struck with how dramatic her story was and what a beautiful person she appeared to be, and how profound their love was.”
Initially, their daughter was not that eager to talk. But “I wanted my family’s story to be known,” she said. “They helped a lot of people. For me to see a lot of interracial marriages or couples, and a lot of mixed children, I want them to know that it was because of my parents that they are able to do what they wanted to do.”
Peggy Loving said her mother always told her “that she wasn’t trying to be a Rosa Parks or be out there with Martin Luther King,” though Mildred Loving says in the film that she would have liked to have seen King. They just “wanted to come home and raise us in the country.”
“Everybody would just fall in love with my mother,” she said. “She was one that any and everybody could come to and talk to and she could give them advice.” In the midst of the contentious case, Mildred Loving says in the film: “I knew we had some enemies, but we have some friends, too.”
Her father she describes as stern and proud: “He stood up for what he believed in.”
In Central Point in Caroline County, it wasn’t as unusual as you might think that the two would fall in love. It “was a town where everybody mixed,” Buirski learned. “They all worked together in the fields and they helped each other.”
Buirski sees the Lovings as moral heroes: “They may have been reluctant heroes and they may have been unsung heroes but they are heroes nonetheless.”
After Loving v. Virginia changed America, Richard and Mildred Loving returned home to Central Point, where he built a house for his family across the road from her mother’s house.
He died in an automobile accident in 1975 that also injured his wife. “My mom never married again; she said she missed him,” said Peggy Loving, who still lives a half-mile from the house her father built. “No one lives there but we keep it up.” Her 33-year-old son, Mark, the last child delivered by Richard’s mother, was very close to his grandmother Mildred and is supportive of the film.
After the struggles of her parents, she sees progress in the election of President Obama, whose mother was white and father black. “I would have loved to have been standing behind him when they did the inauguration,” she said.
Though most Americans no longer object to interracial unions, when a no-longer-enforced state law was placed on the ballot in South Carolina in 1998, 30 percent still favored the ban and 62 percent voted to toss it. A poll of likely Republican primary voters in that state last month showed 20 percent still saying interracial marriage should be illegal.
And that’s too close for comfort for me in next-door North Carolina. As a black woman married to a man of Norwegian-Irish-English descent, it was impossible to watch “The Loving Story” without thinking of my own walk down the aisle with my father, surrounded by family and friends in my home parish in Baltimore.
That traditional scene, played out like so many before and since, would have been just a dream until 1967, when Maryland repealed its state ban just before the Loving ruling.
It seems a throwback when many of today’s presidential hopefuls rail against federal government interference in states’ rights, threaten to rein in liberal activist courts, and use ACLU as a dirty word. I wonder where they would have stood in 1967, when the Lovings appealed to the attorney general and the nation's highest court.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.