Mildred Loving: Civil rights pioneer

At 2am on 11 July 1958, Mildred Loving and her husband were woken up by the local Virginia sheriff and two deputies who, acting on a tip-off, had broken into their bedroom, shining flashlights into their faces. "Who is this woman you're sleeping with?" the sheriff brusquely asked. That Mildred was Richard Loving's wife made no difference. The couple were arrested. For she was black and he was white, at a time when two dozen states across America banned such unions under anti-miscegenation laws, in Virginia's case dating back to the 17th century.

Mildred Loving was a soft-spoken, gentle woman who never intended to be an activist. She simply wanted to live a normal married life in the Virginia countryside just north of the state capital, Richmond, where she and Richard had known each other as children, and where they had grown up.

But circumstances dictated otherwise. Her battle to secure a normal life led ultimately to a US Supreme Court decision of 1967, ending the bar on mixed marriages in Virginia and elsewhere. In essence, her case removed the last brick of the legal edifice of slavery and segregation, after the groundbreaking civil rights legislation earlier in the decade.

"I think marrying who you want is a right no man should have anything to do with, it's a God-given right," she declared shortly after her historic victory.

That, however, had not been the opinion back in 1958 of Leon Bazile, the local Circuit Court judge, as he sentenced the couple to a one-year jail term, to be suspended if they left the state for the next 25 years, and never returned together.

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents," Judge Bazile declared. "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 Lovings pleaded guilty, paid $72 in court costs and moved back north to Washington DC where they had been married a few months before – he a construction worker of 23, she an 18-year-old girl already pregnant with the first of their three children.

But they missed their family and old friends in the country too much. Taking heart from the burgeoning civil rights movement, Mildred wrote in 1963 to the then Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, protesting her plight. The Justice Department put her in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union, which accepted the case. After a three-year journey through lower appeal courts, Loving vs Virginia arrived at the highest jurisdiction in the land.

The ruling of the nine-member Supreme Court was unanimous, and the final opinion was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had written the Court's Brown vs Board of Education judgment in 1954 that ended segregation in US schools, and set in motion the civil rights era. Marriage, said Warren, "is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival." To deny it "on so unsupportable a basis as racial classification" was to deprive every American citizen of freedom.

But the Lovings did not enjoy their new freedom for very long. They moved back to Virginia but in 1975, just eight years later, Richard died in a car accident.

Rupert Cornwell

Mildred Delores Jeter: born 22 July 1939; married 1958 Richard Loving (died 1975; two sons, one daughter); died Central Point, Virginia 2 May 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before