Looking Back at Loving v. Virginia: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark Case

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

When Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving started dating in the early 1950s, the idea that their relationship could change history could not have seemed more remote. When they decided to marry, Richard knew plenty of other people in Central Point, Virginia, had skirted the same legal barriers that stood in their way. Those Central Pointers had always been able to resume their lives afterward with no controversy or consequence. He and Mildred expected the same for themselves.

Loving v. Virginia upset one of the last strongholds of segregation.

Instead, Mildred and Richard would become the subject of numerous books and articles, a made-for-TV movie, a documentary, and a feature film, as well as the plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court case that turns 50 today. Their reluctance and modesty, even as their legal battle took on national significance, were captured in what Richard told LIFE Magazine in 1966: “[We] are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”

An Illegal Marriage

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter met in 1950, seven miles from Central Point, at a farmhouse where the seven-member Jeter Brothers were staging a bluegrass show. Richard loved listening to bluegrass. That night, however, it was not the performers, but their younger sister, Mildred, who captured his attention. Mildred was a few years his junior and known for being shy and soft-spoken. She thought Richard seemed arrogant at first, but her impression changed as she got to know the kindness he possessed. The two dated for several years, often spending time together at the racetrack, where Richard and two close friends won numerous trophies with a race car they maintained together.

What would have otherwise been a familiar story of romance in rural, 1950s America was complicated by race, at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched. Richard Loving was white, of Irish and English descent, and Mildred Jeter was black, as well as part Cherokee and Rappahannock. For Richard and Mildred, though, Central Point provided an unusually safe space, one that stalled the expectation that their relationship could invite legal troubles.

Caroline County, where Central Point was located, had been home to multiracial families since Colonial times. In the 1950s, students of mixed white, black, and Native American ancestry were common in the county’s segregated high school. Interracial couples had been known to marry out of state — to get around Virginia’s restrictions against interracial marriage — and return to the county to live. So blurred were racial lines in that part of Virginia that locals claimed a feature of Central Point’s landscape, Passing Road, had gotten its name from the many residents who could “pass” as white.

In 1958, Mildred and Richard decided to marry when Mildred, then 18, became pregnant. Richard knew they would need to do what other Central Pointers like them had done, so they drove 80 miles to Washington, D.C., and got married on June 2, 1958. They slept in a downstairs bedroom in Central Point with Mildred’s family, until Richard, who worked as a bricklayer, could build a home for them. Just weeks later, on July 11, they were roused from their sleep at 2 a.m. when the local sheriff, R. Garnett Brooks, entered their bedroom with two of his deputies.

Shining his flashlight at Richard, Brooks demanded to know, “What are you doing in bed with this woman?”

Mildred answered, “I’m his wife,” while Richard pointed to the marriage certificate they had hung on their wall.

Brooks responded simply, “That’s no good here.”

Richard and Mildred were jailed for violating Virginia code 20-54, which prohibited marriages between “white and colored persons,” and code 20-58, which prohibited couples from marrying out of state and returning to Virginia to reside as husband and wife.

The following January, the Lovings pleaded guilty in county court to the charges against them. They were sentenced to a year in prison, but were given the option of a suspended sentence if they agreed to leave Virginia and remain out of the state for 25 years. The Lovings chose forced removal over imprisonment. They returned to Washington, D.C., this time to live.

Fighting to Return Home

The Lovings tried to make the best of their life in Washington, D.C., but they missed their families and their life back in Virginia, and financial constraints were taking a toll on them. Out of frustration, and on the advice of a cousin, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, asking if he could get the judgment against them reversed. Her hope was that the pending passage of the Civil Rights Act, which promised numerous protections against discrimination, would enable Kennedy to intervene on their behalf.

Kennedy couldn’t help the Lovings himself, but he referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union. An attorney at the ACLU’s National Capitol Area office, Bernard Cohen, took on their case, and in late 1963, he filed a motion to vacate the county court’s guilty finding.

The sitting judge, Leon Bazile, delayed his judgment for months. When a federal panel finally forced his response, he revealed the deeply racist sentiment behind Virginia’s restrictions against interracial marriage: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

What made Bazile’s response ironic was that the two Virginia codes the Lovings had been charged under, 20-54 and 20-58, were from Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which had taken pains to accommodate some of the racial mingling that had already taken place in Virginia. Before the abolition of slavery, the state’s wealthiest families, including Thomas Jefferson’s, were often home to children born to one white parent and one black parent. Sexual violence against the many black people who were kept as slaves was common, but consensual relationships occurred as well. Men in slave-owning families often chose concubines from among their slaves, while romantic partnerships often formed between the whites they employed as servants and the blacks who lived in their households as slaves. Thus, the Racial Integrity Act recognized that white citizens could have up to one-sixteenth black heritage; that much or more, though, would designate them as black. The act also had to make an exception for highborn Virginians who claimed to be descendants of Pocahontas, the legendary Powhatan woman who had featured prominently in the founding of Jamestown.

In spite of the mental gymnastics they required, laws against interracial marriage were common at the time. In 1958, when the Lovings married, 24 states had legally enforceable statutes against interracial marriage, varying significantly from state to state in how much mixed heritage a “white” person could have and which “races” (such as “Negroes,” “Indians,” “Hindus,” and “Mongolians”) were barred from marrying whites.

While Cohen had been awaiting Bazile’s response, he recruited as co-counsel a former mentor, Philip Hirschkop, who at the time was involved in black voting rights work in Mississippi. Hirschkop suggested that instead of challenging the Lovings’ sentence, the two of them should challenge the constitutionality of the Virginia codes under which they were sentenced. In the fall of 1964, the attorneys filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The district court declined to rule on the Virginia codes, so Cohen and Hirschkop went next to the Virginia Supreme Court, which upheld Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage. They would now take their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Loving v. Virginia and its Impact on Civil Rights

In 1967, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Lovings’ case, Loving v. Virginia. The court was then under Chief Justice Earl Warren, a moderate Republican who had presided over the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Warren believed the nation could benefit from seeing the court decide on the Lovings’ case, which presented another important — and potentially polarizing — civil rights issue.

Prior to Loving, civil rights attorneys had waited to challenge interracial marriage bans in federal courts. As Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania has explained, in the field of civil rights law, “interracial marriage seemed at once so trivial and so controversial.” It was “[t]rivial because it involved interpersonal relationships rather than the weighty public rights to equal education, voting, and employment.” At the same time, for many white Southerners, maintaining segregation in those realms of weighty public rights was the first line of defense against their ultimate fear: the loss of white racial purity. The Mississippi politician Theodore Bilbo had expressed the sentiment bluntly when he asked, “If we sit with Negroes at our tables, if we attend social functions with them as our social equals, if we disregard segregation in all other relations, is it then possible that we maintain it fixedly in the marriage of the South’s Saxon sons and daughters?” Making segregationists face their ultimate fear risked a backlash against the work civil rights attorneys had been doing around voting rights, equal employment opportunities, and other areas of civic life.

Undeterred, on April 10, 1967, Hirschkop and Cohen presented their oral arguments to the Supreme Court. Hirschkop argued that Virginia’s restrictions on interracial marriage violated the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which holds that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” are guaranteed “equal protection of the laws.” Representing the Commonwealth of Virginia was Assistant Attorney General R.D. McIlwaine III, who argued that his state had a “vital interest in maximizing the number of successful marriages which lead to stable homes and families” — which he claimed would be imperiled by interracial marriage.

On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court delivered its unanimous decision, agreeing with Hirschkop and Cohen that Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause. Chief Justice Warren wrote in his opinion,

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. 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.

The decision in Loving invalidated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and the many other state laws like it, legalizing interracial marriage throughout the United States. Today, Loving v. Virginia is remembered as one of the last major cases of the civil rights era and a decision that upset one of the last strongholds of segregation.

For the Lovings, it meant finally moving back to Virginia. By then, they had three children: Peggy, Sidney, and Donald.

The Lovings’ case took on additional relevance to civil rights — this time, for LGBTQ people — when it was cited in 2013 in the Supreme Court hearing for Hollingsworth v. Perry, the landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage. Like Loving v. Virginia, both the arguments and decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry focused on the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection.

Neither Richard nor Mildred Loving were still alive when Hollingsworth v. Perry was decided. Richard had been killed by a drunk driver in 1975, and Mildred passed away in 2008. Before her death, however, when she was asked to speak about the 40th anniversary of the Loving decision, Mildred expressed hope that it could provide groundwork in the legal battle for same-sex marriage. While the Lovings took a personal, private approach to their case in the 1960s, by 2007, Mildred Loving recognized how much bigger the case was when she proclaimed, “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.”