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Their marriage broke the law, and made history

The Lovings took their interracial union to the Supreme Court, and ended U.S. bans on mixed pairings.

June 17, 2007|Dionne Walker | Associated Press

MILFORD, VA. — Reporters no longer beat a path to the modest white house just over the Caroline County border -- and that's fine with its owner, a soft-spoken 67-year-old who never wanted the fame her marriage brought her.

Born Mildred Jeter, she's known mostly by the name she took when she -- a black woman living in segregated Virginia -- dared break the rules by marrying a white man named Richard Loving.

The union landed the Lovings in jail, and then before the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally in the history books. Forty years ago last week, the court ruled in favor of the couple, overturning laws prohibiting interracial unions and changing the face of America.

Mildred Loving is a matriarch to thousands of mixed couples now sprinkled in every city. But she hardly considers herself a hero -- just a girl who once fell in love with a boy.

"It wasn't my doing," Loving told the Associated Press in a rare interview. "It was God's work."

*

While the rest of the Jim Crow South struggled to divide the races in the early '50s, blacks and whites in tiny Central Point had long been intertwined. They worked together on farms, raising chickens and tobacco. They drag-raced together.

And often, they were intimate, explained Edward Clarke, who grew up in the town an hour outside Richmond, today little more than vast fields, ragtag homes and weed-choked farmhouses.

Standing in the hilly cemetery where Richard Loving is buried, he waved his hand over markers reading Jeter, Byrd and Fortune -- black folks, he explained, many so pale they could pass for white.

"The white people were just like the black people," said Clarke, himself a black man with clay-colored skin and stick-straight hair. "You lived and survived ... it was a sharing thing."

It was in this setting that a skinny 11-year-old nicknamed "Bean" met a 17-year-old boy who was a family friend, according to Phyl Newbeck, a Vermont author who detailed the case in the 2004 book, "Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers."

Over several years, friendship led to courtship -- but their relationship took an abrupt turn when Mildred became pregnant at 18.

"We're talking the early '50s, when an illegitimate child was far more of a stigma," Newbeck said. "I don't think Richard wanted her to have to bear that."

So they drove some 80 miles to Washington, D.C., in 1958, married, and returned to Central Point to start a new life.

"I think he thought [if] we were married, they couldn't bother us," Mildred said.

Within a month, they were in jail.

Now 84, Garnett Brooks vividly recalls bursting into the Lovings' home at 2 a.m., rousing the couple out of their sleep and hauling them off to face the law. Word of their marriage -- nobody's sure who complained -- had reached the commonwealth's attorney.

"He told me to go and check on them and if they are [married], arrest them," said Brooks, who insists the case wasn't about race, but about illegal cohabitation.

"I told him I'd be glad to do it."

*

A 28-year-old Phil Hirschkop was just a few months out of law school when he overheard a professor discussing the Lovings with another lawyer, Bernard Cohen.

It was 1964, and the Lovings had spent the past few years living in exile in Washington after being convicted on charges of "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth," according to their indictments. Laws banning racially mixed marriages existed in at least 17 states.

The couple had avoided a year in jail by agreeing to a sentence mandating that "both accused leave Caroline County and the state of Virginia at once, and do not return together or at the same time to said county and state for a period of 25 years."

They got around it, recalls University of Georgia professor and family friend Robert Pratt, by riding back in separate cars and meeting up.

As a child, Pratt would play with the Loving kids: Donald, Peggy and Sidney, who still lives with his mother.

"Especially on summer nights, I would look for them," Pratt said. "Then I would hear my mother and grandmother start betting on how long it would be before Richard came along from the opposite direction."

The frustrated young wife had written to then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, who referred her to the ACLU for help returning to their Virginia home permanently. Cohen filed a motion to vacate the 1959 sentence against the couple, but hit a dead end when the courts refused to respond.

American courts had proven tough on race-mixing in the past: A handful of cases similar to the Lovings' had come up before in other places, but were stuck in a thicket of state-sanctioned racism and red tape.

But lawmakers had just passed the Civil Rights Act, and across the South, blacks were defying Jim Crow's hold.

Hirschkop was convinced that the Supreme Court was ready for change too -- but the right case had to come before the justices, free of any legal loopholes the state could seize upon. The Lovings presented just such a case.

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