Tuesday 14 February 2012

Richard and Mildred Loving

I really couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do this entry; it’s a perfect storm given that today is Valentine’s Day. It involves a guy named Richard, black history, and love. Bam! It had to be today’s story.

Richard and Mildred Loving were the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court Case Loving vs. Virginia, which declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. With the help of the ACLU, these two people ensured that inter-racial marriage was legal throughout the United States.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were natives of Central Point, Virginia. Richard was white; Mildred was part African-American and part Native American. Richard was a family friend of the Jeters, and he and Mildred first met when Richard was 17 and Mildred only 11. They began dating several years later and got married in June 1958 when Mildred was pregnant. The couple got married in Washington, D.C. because inter-racial marriages were illegal in Virginia. At the time, Mildred did not realize her marriage was illegal (she was, after all, only eighteen), but she believed that Richard (who was twenty-four at the time) knew. I have to say, this really speaks well of Richard. Sure, the two got married because a baby was on the way, but it probably would have been fairly easy for a Southern white man to abandon the black woman he had impregnated (actually, didn’t Strom Thurmond do that?). Richard must have really loved Mildred to knowingly go through with an illegal marriage. After the wedding, however, they returned home to Virginia because that’s where all their friends and family were.

Trouble began five weeks later when the Lovings were arrested in the middle of the night in their own home by the county sheriff (who had received an anonymous tip). As Wikipedia so nicely puts it, the “Lovings were charged under Virginia's anti-miscegenation law with ‘cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.’” Well done, Virginia – marriage is so undignified. The two spent some time in jail (Richard a day and Mildred a few days), and then pleaded guilty and were sentenced in January 1959. Although each received a sentence of one year in prison, it was suspended on condition that the Lovings leave Virginia for a minimum of twenty-five years. The couple moved to Washington, D.C.

It wasn’t until 1963 that Mildred decided she had had enough. Annoyed at being unable to live close to their families and irritated that she and Richard could not travel together to Virginia (since the two had agreed to not return together to Virginia for 25 years, they had to visit their families separately), Mildred wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general. He suggested she get in contact with the ACLU. The ACLU filed to vacate the Lovings’ sentence on the grounds that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Virginia Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the Lovings’ conviction. Consequently, the ACLU appealed the decision to the United States’ Supreme Court.

The case of Loving vs. Virginia was decided on 12 June 1967. The court unanimously ruled for the Lovings: their convictions were overturned and the anti-miscegenation law was deemed unconstitutional because it violated the due process and equal protection clauses in the Fourteenth Amendment. With that decision, inter-racial marriage became legal in all fifty states. The Lovings returned to Virginia after the decision, presumably to live near their families.

Mildred and Richard had three children: Donald, Peggy, and Sidney. Sadly, after the Supreme Court’s decision, the couple didn’t even have another ten years together. Tragically, Richard Loving was killed in 1975 (at age 41) when a drunk driver hit their car. Mildred was also in the car, and she lost her right eye in the accident. She never remarried.

Mildred died of pneumonia in 2008, aged only 68. Just the year before, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Loving vs. Virginia she had issued a statement. In it, she spoke the importance of everyone having the freedom to marry, concluding with, “I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” You go, Mildred!

Mildred and Richard sound like they were pretty awesome people. I’m actually kind of sad that they both died at such young ages (while 68 is older than 41, it certainly isn’t old). It’s especially sad that Richard was killed by a drunk driver after he and Mildred had only been married seventeen years. Given what they did for the rest of us, they deserved to grow old together.

In order to perk us all up a bit, don’t forget to listen to Count Basie’s version of “Open the Door, Richard!” It was tearin’ up the charts in February 1947!

*One final note: Happy Birthday (tomorrow) to a devoted reader! Holy 19 years old, Batman!

For more on Richard and Mildred Loving, see:

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