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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Farewell To Mildred Loving, Civil Rights Trailblazer

She was a small town girl who simply wanted to marry her childhood sweetheart. What could be more all American than that?

Well, back in 1958, if the small town was in Virginia, or much of the South, and if you were black and he was white, it was against the law to marry. But Mildred Loving, a quiet, self-effacing woman wouldn't accept that. And because of her and her husband, Richard Loving, the laws changed.

In 1958, the 17 year old, Mildred Jeter, and her 23 year old fiancee, a white construction worker, traveled 90 miles to Washington, DC to get married. She didn't realize that it was illegal. According to this article in today's Washington Post:
"I think he thought [if] we were married, they couldn't bother us," she said.

Nevertheless, when they returned to Central Point, Va., between Richmond and Spotsylvania, to set up their home, someone called the law.

Caroline County Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks rousted them from their bed at 2 a.m. in July 1958 and told them the District's marriage certificate was no good in Virginia. He took them to jail and charged them with unlawful cohabitation. They pleaded guilty, and Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced them to a year's imprisonment, to be suspended if they left the state for the next 25 years.

"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 marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix," Bazile ruled.
After that decision the Lovings moved to the District to live with her cousins. But the Lovings missed their rural life in Central Point, Virginia. So they returned.
Five years later, while visiting her mother, they were arrested again for traveling together. Loving, who had been following the 1964 civil rights legislation, wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to find out if the new law would allow the couple to travel freely. The couple was referred to the American Civil Liberties Union and assigned an attorney, Bernard S. Cohen. "It was a terrible time in America," said Cohen, who was at Loving's home when she died. "Racism was ripe and this was the last de jure vestige of racism -- there was a lot of de facto racism, but this law was . . . the last on-the-books manifestation of slavery in America."

With fellow attorney Philip J. Hirschkop, Cohen took the case to the high court. Cohen said the couple didn't understand the importance of the case to anyone other than themselves. "When I told them I thought the case was going all the way to the Supreme Court, [Richard Loving's] jaw dropped. He didn't understand why I didn't go to Judge Bazile and tell him they loved each other and they should be allowed to live where they wished," said Cohen, now a retired state delegate from Alexandria.
Then, in 1967, the Lovings made history and radically altered an injustice and paved the way for people in love to marry and live wherever they pleased in the United States.

On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared: "There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. . . . There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause."
After this landmark decision, the Lovings returned to Caroline County, where they raised three children and lived a quiet life until Richard Loving was killed, in 1975, by a drunk driver. Mrs. Loving lost an eye in that accident.

According to those who knew her, Mildred Loving was a modest woman who never realized just how much she accomplished with her courageous decision to marry the man she loved and return to the South that she also loved. She never quite fathomed the fact that she and Richard really made history and made it possible for other mixed race couples to live openly together.
"To her death, she never felt she had done anything noteworthy. She never considered herself a pioneer."

Others did. Loving's church, St. Stephens Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Va., gave her a certificate recognizing the trailblazing lawsuit.

"The preacher at my church classified me with Rosa Parks," she told The Washington Post in 1992. "I don't feel like that. Not at all. What happened, we really didn't intend for it to happen. What we wanted, we wanted to come home."
Mildred Loving passed away last Friday after fighting pneumonia. The greatest tribute one can give her is to publicly recognize that she left the world a far better place by simply being in it.

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