Mildred and Richard Loving had grown up near each other in a small community in the hills of Virginia, the state just south of Washington DC. One of America’s original 13 states, Virginia had a tobacco economy based on slave labor from 1620s to the American Civil War in the 1860s. Mildred’s family had lived in the area for generations, as had his.
Mildred and Richard fell in love and got married in June 1958. They moved in with her family while Richard, a carpenter, built them a new house. One night five weeks after the wedding, police barged into their bedroom at 2 am to arrest them.
African-Americans in Cold War Nepal, Tom Robertson
They were sentenced to a year in prison, or to leave the state for 25 years. Their supposed crime was violating a Virginia law prohibiting interracial marriages. Richard Loving was white.
Mildred Jeter was mixed African American and Native American.
To stay together, they decided to move to Washington, DC. Maryland created the first law against interracial marriage three centuries earlier, in 1661, and Virginia followed suit the next year.
At the time, European settlement was only a few decades old, and the use of enslaved African people for arduous tobacco work was growing.
Slavery lasted another 200 years, until the American Civil War in the 1860s. White slaveowners sometimes had sexual relations with black slaves. Rape was common. By law, children from these relations were considered black, not white or mixed, and became slaves.
The American Civil War ended slavery in 1865, but afterwards white supremacists created ‘segregation’ laws to keep whites and blacks apart that would last for another century. Courtrooms, railroads, buses, and theaters had separate sections for whites and blacks.
White and black children studied at different schools. Facilities for black Americans were far inferior to those for whites.
Segregation was enforced by police, laws, and courts, but also by violence. Over the years, over 3,000 black Americans were killed in lynchings — killings outside the legal system — to enforce this unjust, hierarchical system.
Nothing was more carefully policed than marriage separation.
The Civil Rights freedom protests of the 1950s and 1960s ended most segregation laws. The last to fall were laws prohibiting mixed race marriage in 15 of the southern states, including Virginia. It was the case started by the Lovings that brought it down.
After their arrest, Mildred and Richard Loving moved to Washington DC so they could avoid jail time, and be together. But they missed the place where they grew up, the hills of Virginia, and their families there. They filed a lawsuit.
At the time, an elderly Virginia judge used religion to justify the law preventing interracial marriage.
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” he wrote. “The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The judge’s argument used religion to deny love. It also shows a common strategy of calling one’s own inaccurate and flawed ideas ‘natural’. But across the world, racial groups had been intermingling and intermarrying for millennia. It was natural.
Richard Loving boiled down his case to very straightforward logic. “Tell the court,” he instructed his lawyer, “I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
In 1967, nine years after their wedding, the US Supreme Court decided 9-0 in favor of Mildred and Richard Loving. The Lovings and their three children moved back to their families in their beloved Virginia.
In the US today, over 15% of marriages are between people of different racial groups.
In 1990, even 25 years after the Loving v. Virginia decision, 63% of white and other non-black adults said they would opposed a close relative marrying a black person. Today only 14% say this.
On Loving Day 2007, Mildred Loving shared these touching words: “My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart…But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realise that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry.”
Mildred and Richard’s granddaughter summarised the lesson that her grandparents taught the world: “If it’s genuine love, [skin] colour doesn’t matter.”
Let’s hope that today, on Loving Day, and every day, that message of love spreads from the beautiful hills of Virginia to the beautiful mountains of Nepal.