Around 2 a.m. on a July night in 1958, a Virginia county sheriff walked into the home of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, a married couple, and arrested them for illegal cohabitation.
Loving, a white 23-year-old construction worker, and Jeter, a black 17-year-old homemaker, had been legally married just weeks before in Washington, D.C., but the newlyweds were still charged with breaking Virginia’s 1924 anti-miscegenation law and sentenced to a year in prison—unless they agreed to leave the state for 25 years.
Ruled Virginia Judge Leon M. Bazile: “The fact that [Almighty God] separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” ruled Virginia Judge Leon M. Bazile in his decision. “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 story of the banished childhood sweethearts—the Lovings had met when they were just 11 and 17—caught the nation by storm. As their ACLU lawyer Bernard Cohen remembered in 2008, the couple had little idea of the significance of the case at the time.
“When I told them I thought the case was going all the way to the Supreme Court, [Richard Loving’s] jaw dropped,” said Cohen to the Washington Post. “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.”
On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that the freedom to marry was an inalienable right in American society. Wrote Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall in the court’s ruling: “To deny this right on so unsupportable a basis as racial classifications… is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
The impact of the decision was immediate. From 1967 to 1970, the rate of reported interracial marriage skyrocketed 448 percent. The rate has risen steadily ever since: According to a 2012 Pew Research study, 1 in 12 married couples identify as interracial today, a record 8.5 percent of Americans.
In recent years, the legacy of Loving v. Virginia has taken on new meaning. Gay rights activists are hoping that the cultural barriers preventing same-sex couples from marrying in some states will break down in the same way they did for interracial couples.
Last year, Ted Olson and David Boies (two lawyers who argued opposite sides of the Supreme Court battle to decide Bush v. Gore) teamed up for a video for the American Foundation for Equal Rights that cited the Loving case as an unequivocal precedent for same-sex couples to be allowed equal rights.
“Though Ted and I come from different ends of the political spectrum, we both believe that the freedom to marry is a constitutional right as recognized by Loving v. Virginia,” said Boies, “and that all committed and loving Americans should be able to marry the person they love without government interference.”
Mildred Loving was famously modest about her own role in civil rights history. In 2007, shortly before her death, she gave a rare public appearance to make an appeal for equality for same-sex couples.
“I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry... That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
Today, all around the country, Loving Day celebrations honor the memory of the courageous couple. It’s a fitting homage, not just for interracial pairs but for all people who have had to overcome overwhelming odds and sacrifice in the name of love.
“They said I had to leave the state once, and I left with my wife,” said Richard Loving to The Star in 1965. “If necessary, I will leave Virginia again with my wife, but I am not going to divorce her.”
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Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung