By Jesse Washington
ABOVE PHOTO: The Lovings are shown at their Central Point home with their children, Peggy, Donald and Sidney, in 1967.
(Photo from The Free Lance-Star archives)
Richard Loving looks out from the Jim Crow past with wary eyes, appearing on the screen with a blond crew cut, plaid work shirt, bad teeth and Southern accent.
“He looked like a redneck,” said Philip Hirschkop, a lawyer who soon recognized his mistake — Loving was actually a pioneer for racial equality.
The white bricklayer from Virginia defied stereotypes and centuries of racist laws when he married Mildred Jeter, who was black and Native American. Convicted of violating a law against interracial marriage, the Lovings fought for their rights and won a landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down such bans nationwide.
Their lives are explored in a new documentary, “The Loving Story,” which premiered, Feb. 14, on HBO.
[See HBO.com for rebroadcasts of “The Loving Story” at dates and times in your local area.]
Today, there are more than 4 million “mixed marriages” in the United States, and roughly one in seven new marriages are between people of different ethnicities. But in 1958, when the Lovings’ marriage was ruled illegal and they were banished from their native Virginia, 21 states outlawed interracial unions.
“The Loving Story” details the couple’s nine-year battle to live in Virginia as man and wife. Using evocative photographs, newly unearthed footage and interviews with the Lovings’ daughter and lawyers, the film reveals the power of love to overcome bigotry.
“I came to respect Mildred and Richard so much,” said the film’s director and producer, Nancy Buirski. “I think these people had such high standards and strong principles and in many ways they defied stereotypes.”
“You don’t have to be an activist to change history,” Buirski said. “You just have to believe strongly in something.”
Richard and Mildred grew up near each other in rural Virginia. They courted for a few years before getting married in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 1958, then returned home to live near their families.
On July 14, the sheriff broke into the Lovings’ bedroom in the middle of the night and took them to jail. Judge Leon Bazile sentenced the Lovings to five years in prison, but suspended the sentence as long as they left the state. And Bazile made a statement that demonstrates the immense distance society has traveled since 1958, a statement that is narrated at the start of the film:
“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,” Bazile said in court. “The fact that He separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mate.”
But “The Loving Story” makes clear that Mildred and Richard Loving were meant for each other.
Numerous still photographs, taken for Life magazine by Grey Villet, capture the intimate glances and gestures shared by soul mates. Archival film depicts mundane moments of daily life — a sock smoothed over a foot; a log tossed into the stove — that become pregnant with meaning when a family is under attack.
Mildred, who died in 2008, does most of the talking, her gentle voice describing the ordeal she endured with her husband and three children. Richard, who was killed by a drunken driver in 1975, says little beyond, “I’m not gon’ divorce her.”
The Lovings moved to Washington to be together, but Mildred was not suited for city life. A friend told her to write to the U.S. attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, who advised her to contact the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen were the ACLU lawyers who took the case to the Supreme Court. Their opponents argued that interracial marriages — and the children they produced — were much more likely to have difficulties. They compared Virginia’s law banning such marriages to those prohibiting polygamy or incest.
In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in the Lovings’ favor.
Buirski noted that even though most Americans now say they have no problems with interracial marriage, pockets of resistance have remained.
Laws prohibiting interracial marriage stayed on the books in South Carolina and Alabama until 1998 and 2000, respectively. In 2009, a Louisiana justice of the peace refused to marry a black man and a white woman. “I’m not a racist,” said the official, Keith Bardwell. “I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way.”
In a 2011 Gallup poll, 84 percent of whites and 96 percent of blacks said they approved of interracial marriage.
“It’s not something we can take for granted,” Buirski said.
“Racial identity is an important conversation to have in our culture, and I think the more we bring it to the forefront of our conversation, the better it is for everybody. That’s one reason I don’t see this story as history. I see this as living history.”
A history written by two people who knew their love was true, and who may have glimpsed a better future.
“It’s not so much me and Richard — we could go away,” Mildred says in the film. “It’s the principle. It’s the law. I don’t think it’s right. If we do win, we’ll be helping a lot of people.”
WHY TELL THIS STORY?
Though often overlooked among the pantheon of civil rights stories, Mildred and Richard Loving’s quest to live together as husband and wife in the state of Virginia was a pivotal struggle. A white man and a part black, part Cherokee woman were in love and did not understand why their marriage was a criminal offense in the eyes of state. Their effort to make this right – to not live in shame or in exile – is a universal one and reminds us of oppressed and exiled people everywhere. The Lovings were banished from their home for their commitment to each other, and they fought long and hard to return to it, to love each other within the bosom of their family.
It was Mildred Loving who took up their cause, who summoned the will and the courage to fight a hostile system that maintained bans against interracial marriage. She did not set out to be a hero or to change the world. But her need to find a way to live with her husband in their home state of Virginia came at the time of momentous civil rights change. So their quest was made not just for themselves, but for a multitude of others – Mildred’s story became not just her story, but the story of many.
The film investigates the life and legend of Mildred and her husband Richard, little-known heroes of the Civil Rights Era. Though taught in law schools and undergraduate civil rights courses, their story has not had a full documentary treatment, nor has the subject that generated their story – miscegenation in America. Anti-miscegenation has been sensationalized fictionally, starting with the landmark film The Birth of a Nation, but it has never been explored substantively in non-fiction film. This is a surprising omission given miscegenation’s intricate ties to racism.
WHY TELL IT NOW?
There are few Supreme Court rulings that have had the impact that the Loving case had on our culture and politics. In 1967, the year of Loving v. Virginia, 16 states had laws against interracial marriage. Had Barack Obama’s white mother and black father lived in one of those states when they married in 1961, their marriage would have been a felony. Yet the culture of interracial marriage is slow to catch up with legal realities. The 2000 census found only 4.9% of US marriages were interracial.
White Supremacy groups are growing in the US – the very communities that perpetuated and maintained anti-miscegenation laws up to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling. While we’ve elected the first mixed-race President, we also recently witnessed a Louisiana Justice of the Peace refusing to marry a mixed-race couple. Anti-miscegenation sentiments are at the heart of racial segregation and apparently still alive today. The struggle for same-sex marriage has important civil rights parallels. Both address basic human rights.
The Loving Story rouses discussion and debate about interracial marriage and tolerance in the US. It brings together all groups with stakes in marriage equality to seek out commonalties and understanding. It examines the miscegenation crime the Lovings were accused of committing – its roots based in slavery and its lingering, pervasive impact. Freshly revealed,the Loving’s story inspires mixed race couples and their children to share their struggles and claim their unique identities.
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