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Listening again to loving

Marian Wright Elderman

Sixty years ago in June 1963, a young wife and mother drafted a neatly handwritten letter about a ‘problem’ her family was facing:

Dear Sir:

I am writing to you concerning a problem we have.

Five years ago my husband and I were married here in the District. We then returned to Va. to live. My husband is White, I am part Negro, and part Indian.

At the time we did not know there was a law in Va. against mixed marriages.

Therefore we were jailed and tried in a little town of Bowling Green.

We were to leave the state to make our home.

The problem is we are not allowed to visit our families.  The judge said that if we enter the state in the next 25 years, that we will have to spend one year in jail.

We know we can’t live there, but we would like to go back once and a while to visit our families and friends.

We have three children and cannot afford an attorney.

We wrote to the Attorney General, and he suggested that we get in touch with you for advice.

Please help us if you can. Hope to hear from you real soon.

Yours truly,

Mr. and Mrs. Richard Loving

Mrs. Mildred Loving, the letter’s author, had chosen to reach out to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who suggested she and her husband contact the ACLU for help. Over the next several years dedicated ACLU lawyers took their case through the court system, and the Lovings eventually made history when their struggle to have their marriage recognized in their native Virginia led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia. On June 12, 1967, the justices ruled 9-0 that Virginia’s law banning interracial marriage and all others like it were unconstitutional and that the freedom to marry was “a basic civil right.”

The Lovings, who shunned the spotlight, made it clear they never set out to be social revolutionaries. It was simple: they loved each other, wanted to marry, and beyond that, as Mrs. Loving said: “It was God’s work.” The two first met in the early 1950s in Central Point, Virginia, the small community where they both grew up. They became young sweethearts, and in 1958, when Mildred became pregnant they decided to get married. They drove to Washington, D.C., for their marriage license, and Mrs. Loving later said she initially believed they were doing that because less paperwork was required there. But Richard may have understood something she didn’t. Getting a marriage license as a mixed-race couple would have been illegal and impossible in Virginia.

Mr. Loving may not have known how the state would treat legal interracial marriages that had been performed elsewhere, but five weeks after their wedding they received a very literal rude awakening. Acting on a ‘tip,’ sheriff’s deputies surrounded their bed with flashlights at 2 am demanding to know why they were there together. Their reply that they were husband and wife made no difference. The Lovings were arrested, and Mr. Loving was held in jail overnight while the pregnant Mrs. Loving was forced to stay for several days. Both were charged with violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. Under a plea bargain, in order to avoid a year-long jail sentence they were forced to leave the state and were prohibited from returning together for 25 years. They settled in Washington, D.C., but missed the small town where they had spent their entire lives. These were the conditions that led the Lovings, inspired by the growing Civil Rights Movement, to reach out to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking for change.

After the landmark 1967 victory Mr. and Mrs. Loving returned to their hometown with their three children. Sadly their own happiness ended in tragedy in 1975 when Mr. Loving was killed and Mrs. Loving lost the sight in one eye in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. But the Lovings had paved the way for thousands of other couples like themselves who were marrying the people they loved. Thanks to God’s work and the Lovings’ love, my husband Peter and I were the very first interracial couple to be married in Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Mrs. Loving never remarried and lived quietly at her home in rural Caroline County, Virginia until she passed away in 2008. But a year before her death, the widow, grandmother, and great-grandmother sent another groundbreaking letter. This time, it was a public statement submitted just before the Massachusetts Legislature’s historic vote reaffirming marriage equality, and read aloud at a 40th anniversary celebration of the Loving v. Virginia decision:

“When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married. My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

“Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

“I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, Black or White, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”

In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court would issue another landmark decision guaranteeing full marriage equality. But this June, during a Pride Month when bigotry, intolerance, and threats of violence against LGBTQ+ Americans are on a sharp and dangerous rise, it is critical to listen again to Mrs. Loving’s words. Mildred Loving and the lawyers and judges who affirmed her convictions were on the right side of history. Ugly voices shouting for less equality and less freedom will not carry the day now.

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