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Originally published Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Mildred Loving's case made interracial marriage legal

For marrying the only man she ever loved, Mildred Loving was arrested, convicted and banished from her home state. The Commonwealth of Virginia...

Los Angeles Times

For marrying the only man she ever loved, Mildred Loving was arrested, convicted and banished from her home state.

The Commonwealth of Virginia handed down such punishments in the 1950s to couples whose love the state did not sanction: She was black; her husband, Richard, was white; and their union was prohibited by law.

The marriage could have collapsed under the hammer of Jim Crow. Instead, the Lovings' challenge of the law led to a Supreme Court ruling in 1967 that toppled bans on interracial marriages nationwide.

For Mrs. Loving, the issue was always simple: "I think marrying who you want is a right no man should have anything to do with," she said in a 1967 segment of "ABC News." "It's a God-given right."

Mrs. Loving, 68, died of pneumonia May 2 at her home in Central Point, Va., said her daughter, Peggy Fortune.

In 1958, when the Lovings were arrested, laws supporting segregation were falling, but half of the states still had anti-miscegenation laws, said Peter Wallenstein, a professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. Those laws deprived Americans of the most intimate of decisions: who could be their spouse.

"This was the last piece — and it was a big piece — in the whole structure of Jim Crow," Wallenstein said.

In Virginia's Caroline County, where Mildred Jeter was born July 22, 1939, a 1691 statute outlawed marriage between whites and nonwhites. An 1878 law introduced a penalty of up to five years in prison and a clause: Those who married out of state, then returned to Virginia, would be treated the same as those who had married in the state.

The Lovings had done just that. The couple drove to Washington, D.C., married on June 2, 1958, then returned to Caroline County, where they moved in with Mrs. Loving's parents.

The Lovings woke up about 2 a.m. one July night to see the sheriff and deputies surrounding their bed, shining flashlights.

Richard Loving rushed to show the men their marriage license. The sheriff was not moved. "That's no good here," he said.

"They told us to get up, get dressed. I couldn't believe they were taking us to jail," Mrs. Loving said.

The Lovings were indicted and pleaded guilty to violating the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, another version of the state's anti-miscegenation law. Judge Leon Bazile sentenced the couple to a year in jail but suspended the sentence for 25 years on the condition they leave the state and not return together during that time.

The Lovings moved to Washington, D.C. In 1963, Mrs. Loving wrote to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kenney and asked for his help. The Justice Department referred the couple to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Lovings' case landed at the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the court ruled 9-0 that Virginia's laws were aimed at white supremacy, were unconstitutional and violated the 14th Amendment.

The couple moved back to Virginia. In 1975, Richard Loving was killed by a drunken driver in a car accident. Mildred Loving, who never remarried, died one month shy of what would have been her 50th wedding anniversary.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a son, Sidney Loving, of Tappahannock, Va.; eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. A son, Donald, died in 2000.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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