No one from Hollywood saw this file.
For decades, Philip J. Hirschkop, a Virginia civil rights lawyer, has kept his original file from Loving v. Virginia, the case that led to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriages in Virginia and 15 other states.
A film, “Loving,” which opened in theaters last month, tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the mixed-race couple who were arrested in 1958 after they defied Virginia’s miscegenation laws. A judge banished them from the state, threatening to imprison them if they returned. Their love story became legendary.
Hirschkop and another attorney, Bernard Cohen, represented the Lovings during their legal fight.
It was a difficult time to be a black woman married to a white man. “It would have been much harder as a black man and white woman,” Hirschkop said. “They might have been hanged for that.”
Hirschkop, who is still practicing law at 80, dropped the Loving case file on the desk in his home office overlooking the Potomac River in Lorton, Va.
The manila folder contains original letters written by Mildred Loving, who died in 2008. The demure woman wrote in a deliberate cursive, in blue ink on lined notebook paper as she sought legal advice.
“Dear sir: I am writing to you concerning a problem we have,” Mildred Loving explained. In 1958, “my husband and I were married here in the District. We then returned to Va. to live. My husband is White. I am part negro and part Indian.
“At the time we did not know there was a law in Virginia against mixed marriages. Therefore we were jailed and tried in a little town of Bowling Green. We were to leave the state to make our home.”
The problem, she wrote, was that they were not allowed to visit family in Virginia. “The judge said if we enter the state within the next 30 yrs., that we will have to spend 1 yr. in jail. We know we can’t live there, but we would like to go back once and a while to visit our families and friends.”
Hirschkop started working on the Loving case by happenstance. In July 1964, Hirschkop was meeting with Chester Antieau, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center. They were sitting in the faculty lounge when Bernard Cohen sent a note requesting to meet with Antieau.
“Cohen related the basic facts of the Loving matter, and Professor Antieau recommended that Cohen consult with me, pointing out my civil rights experience over the last year,” Hirschkop said.
In 1963, Hirschkop had spent time in Danville, Va., where civil rights protesters had been beaten and pounded with water from fire hoses.
For the next 53 years, Hirschkop would work as a social justice legal crusader, defending the rights of women, teachers, war demonstrators and animals. Hirschkop has served as a litigator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals since the organization was founded in 1980.
In his career, Hirschkop has represented a number of notable people: civil rights firebrand H. Rap Brown, comedian and activist Dick Gregory, homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and writer Norman Mailer, who had been arrested for demonstrating at the Pentagon against the Vietnam War.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Armies of the Night,” Mailer described Hirschkop’s courtroom skills: “Hirschkop’s dark hair and powerful short body put double weight in back of every remark. . . . [W]hat he did believe, what stood out about him, was his love of law as an intricate deceptive, smashing, driving, tricky game somewhere between wrestling, football and philosophy — what also stood out was his love of winning, his tenacity, his detestation of defeat.”
Hirschkop traces his passion for social justice to childhood encounters with migrant farmworkers in New Jersey. His father owned a clothing shop and sold “irregular” clothes to migrant workers who traveled through New Jersey to work on chicken and potato farms. “They would be put to live in cleared-out chicken coops with no running water,” said Hirschkop, a former Green Beret who originally set out to become a patent attorney.
Hirschkop and his wife at the time, Phyllis — they married in 1959 and had two children before divorcing 21 years later — moved to Washington so he could attend law school at Georgetown.
By the time he graduated in 1964, the country was mired in racial turmoil. Civil rights work consumed Hirschkop. He traveled dozens of times to the Deep South to work on cases.
After three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were killed in Mississippi, “I had to go there,” Hirschkop said. “Of all the states in the South, Mississippi was the most dangerous place. When the sun went down, if you weren’t with a group of people, you could be killed.”
When Hirschkop started working on the Loving case in 1964, a petition was still pending in Virginia’s state court system. But a win there was unlikely.
“I concluded that a separate federal lawsuit needed to be filed,” Hirschkop said.
On a plane to Mississippi, Hirschkop said he drafted a federal lawsuit by hand on a legal pad. On Oct. 28, 1964, he and Cohen filed the federal suit on behalf of the Lovings, challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s miscegenation laws.
In the movie, Hirschkop is portrayed by actor Jon Bass. Cohen is played by Nick Kroll.
Although it has won acclaim from critics, Hirschkop doesn’t particularly like the film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, because it deviates from what actually took place.
“The writer called me and said, ‘We’re going to make a movie.’ I never heard from him again.”
There’s a scene in the movie where the Lovings walk out of the Virginia State Supreme Court. “Well, that never happened,” Hirschkop said. “They never went to the state Supreme Court.”
Another scene, which depicts the lawyers visiting Richard Loving at the couple’s farmhouse, also “never happened,” Hirschkop said. “We never went to the farmhouse. They put that scene in there so they could get that line from him, ‘Tell them I love my wife,’ ”
Hirschkop said, “The movie served a valuable purpose in portraying the story about the Lovings.”
Hirschkop and Cohen argued the case before the Supreme Court on April 10, 1967. The highlight of the day, Hirschkop said, was taking a photo on the steps of the Supreme Court with his father, the man who had sparked his interest in justice at a young age. “That picture has been on my desk for 48 years,” Hirschkop said. “I have, for almost five decades, been able to ask my pop if I was doing the right thing.”
On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in the case: Virginia could not longer prohibit mixed-race couples from marrying.
The next day, the Lovings and their attorneys held a triumphant news conference in Alexandria, Va.
“I remember I hugged Mildred for the first time in all the years I had known her,” Hirschkop recalled. “And they left our offices as a legally married couple no longer facing incarceration and able to raise their children living near their parents, family and friends in the commonwealth of Virginia.”