A very heroic woman died yesterday. She probably never wanted to be a hero. She did want to be a wife, though. But back in Virginia in the late 1950s, when Mildred Jeter, a black woman, fell in love with Richard Loving, a white man, and they decided to marry, that was indeed a heroic act. Not only because of society’s prejudices, but also because it was a crime — a felony punishable by one to five years in prison.
Virginia’s law prohibiting interracial marriage wasn’t some unenforced statute, either. Oh no, Virginia was quite serious about keeping the races from “mixing.” The County Sheriff burst into the Lovings’ home in the middle of the night, and Mildred and Richard were charged as criminals and prosecuted — that’s right — prosecuted — for having gotten married. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a year in prison. The trial judge, in a moment of magnanimity, made the Lovings an offer they couldn’t refuse: he agreed to suspend their prison sentence for 25 years if they would just leave Virginia and not return for a quarter of a century. He also had this to say about interracial marriage:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
No fools, Mildred and Richard moved to Washington, D.C. But they also took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, in a unanimous decision by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court reversed their convictions and declared that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The Court struck down these laws — 15 other states had them as well — because they were racially discriminatory and also because they infringed on what the Court recognized was every person’s fundamental right to marry.
Richard Loving was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the Court’s historic ruling in their case, Mildred Loving issued a statement supporting the right of all couples to marry, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Mildred knew that what makes a marriage is love and commitment, not race or gender. And she knew that it shouldn’t take a lawsuit, either, for two people in love to be able to marry.
Mildred and Richard Loving helped teach America some important lessons. Lessons in courage, lessons in love, and, yes, lessons in the importance of the Supreme Court.
America lost another hero yesterday.