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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.