Richard Perry Loving, who was of Irish and English descent, met Mildred Jeter, who was of African American, European and Native American descent in Central Point, Virginia. He was 17 and she was 11. The rural Caroline Country was known for its racial mixing, with people of different ethnic backgrounds openly socializing together, even during the Jim Crow era. Mildred was attending an all-black school when she first met Richard Loving, a white high school student whom she initially perceived as arrogant. Quietly, the two eventually fell in love and began dating. When Mildred became pregnant at the age of 18, the couple decided to get married.
Their union violated Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which forbade interracial marriages. They went to Washington, D.C. to be wed and returned to Virginia. Several weeks later, the local sheriff arrested both Richard and Mildred for violating state law. n January 1959, the Lovings accepted a plea bargain. Judge Leon Bazile ruled that the prison sentence for the couple would be suspended as long as they didn’t return to Virginia together or at the same time for 25 years. “Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” presiding Judge Leon M. Bazile wrote in January 1965. “And but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” The couple lived in Washington D.C. for some time but didn’t like the city life. The attempted to return to their hometown but were arrested again.
In 1963, Mildred, who was known for having a quiet dignity and thoughtfulness, wrote to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy for help. His office recommended that she get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union. Two ACLU lawyers, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, took on the Lovings’ case later that year. During the proceedings, Richard, a generally silent fellow, was adamant about his devotion to his wife and would hear no talk of divorce. The Lovings story would also be presented in a March 1966 LIFE Magazine feature with photos by Grey Villet.
Upon Bazile’s original ruling being upheld in appeals, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. In Loving v. Virginia, the highest bench in the land unanimously struck down Virginia’s law on June 12, 1967, thus allowing the couple to legally return home while also ending the ban on interracial marriages in other states. The court held that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute violated both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the court, stating marriage is a basic civil right and to deny this right on a basis of race is “directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment” and deprives all citizens “liberty without due process of law.”Richard and Mildred were able to openly live in Caroline County again, where they built a home and raised their children. Tragically, Richard was killed in an automobile accident in 1975, when his car was struck by another vehicle operated by a drunk driver. Mildred, who was also in the car, lost sight in her right eye.
An unofficial holiday honoring the Lovings’ triumph and multiculturalism, called Loving Day, is celebrated on June 12th, when the prohibition against mixed-race marriages was lifted from every state constitution. After a 1996 TV-movie, another work on the couple’s life, the Nancy Buirski documentary The Loving Story, was released in 2011. The big-screen biopic Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, was released in 2016. The film received a groundswell of critical acclaim and was nominated for a Golden Globe and two Academy Awards.