Loving vs. Virginia

Jan 23, 2014

Richard and Mildred Loving

The issue of gay marriage resonates in Virginia in particular, because of a landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision involving a Virginia couple and interracial marriage.

You can hear the archived story of Mildred and Richard Loving whose home was raided by police in 1958.  They were charged with violating the state’s Racial Integrity Law. 

 Audio FileFrom our archives, you can hear Sandy Hausman's report on Loving vs. Virginia.Edit | Remove

In 1958, a young Caroline County couple fell in love and went off to Washington DC to get married.  She was 17, he 23.  Five weeks after they got back, the sheriff showed up at their door:

“About 2 o’clock in the morning Sheriff Brooks and his deputies broke into their house, shined flashlights into their eyes while they were in their marital bed and arrested them.”

Bernie Cohen was a young lawyer doing volunteer work for the American Civil Liberties Union.  Richard Loving, who was white, and Mildred Loving, who was half native American, half negro and legally classified as colored were forbidden to marry under Virginia law. They’d gone to Washington to wed.  Back home, a court found them guilty, but suspended a jail sentence when the two agreed to leave the state for a new life in the District of Columbia:

“It was a horrible place for them.  They were country folk and the straw that broke the camel’s back was when one of their young sons was hit by a car.  Luckily, he wasn’t seriously hurt, but Mrs. Loving looked at it as a bad omen and said they had to get out of there.”

“The children didn’t’ have anywhere to play.  They were like being caged, and I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t take it.  I was so unhappy.  I was complaining to my cousin constantly, so one Saturday I guess she got tired of it, and she told me: “Write to Bobby Kennedy.  He’ll help you. That’s what he’s up there for.”

Attorney General Robert Kennedy wrote back, advising her to contact the ACLU.  Bernie Cohen was two years out of law school and happy to take the case. He liked the couple immediately, but he recalls, they knew little about the law:

“Mr. Loving just wanted me to go see Judge Bazile – the judge who had convicted them, and wouldn’t he please let them just come back and live peacefully in Caroline County?  They wouldn’t make any trouble.  And when I explained to him, “We were going to have to file a lawsuit, and it was probably going to go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, well his jaw just dropped to the ground.  He couldn’t believe it, because he naively thought it was just a matter of getting a good lawyer to go talk to the judge.”

Years later, a documentary maker would read about the case and resolve to make a movie.  Nancy Buirski felt sure 21st century people could relate to this tale of forbidden love:

“There are a number of parallels that are very important.  Obviously we are looking at same sex marriage, and redefining marriage as we did 44 years ago when the Lovings took their case to the Supreme Court.  The other thing I believe that makes it timely is the whole issue of racial identity.”

With a man of mixed race in the White House and DNA tests revealing new things about our ancestry, Buirski knew she had a story that would resonate today.  But she didn’t have pictures, and there was no way to talk with the Lovings, since both had died.

Instead, she turned to Bernie Cohen and his co-counsel Phil Hirschkop.  They  told her about another filmmaker – Hope Ryden – who’d spent a week filming the Lovings at home in 1965.  She lived just a few blocks from Buirski in New York City:

“She had hoped she would do a documentary, but she never did, so this is never before seen footage.” 

“That footage blew my mind, and I immediately said yes, and we hit the ground running.”

Elisabeth Haviland James joined the project as a producer and/editor:

“The scene that opens the film, where Mildred Loving is sitting, put shoes and sox on her daughter is so tender, and so elegant and speaks to the era and speaks to the love in their family, and the camera pans over, and you see Richard putting wood in the wood-burning stove, and it just was like being a fly on the wall, and you felt like you were going to really get to know these people and do something more than just a story about a Supreme Court case.”

She also fell in love with stills shot by Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet and with film from the archive of CBS News:

“Mr. Loving, the court of Virginia found you guilty of violating their laws, and what did they tell you you had to do?  Were you supposed to divorce or what?  They said I had to leave the state.  And what happened after that?  I left.  And took your wife with you?  That’s right.  That’s the way I’d feel about it again. If it’s necessary, I’ll leave again and take her.  I’m not going to divorce her!”

James says Richard was an anti-hero: tall and rugged, with a ruddy complexion and close cropped blonde hair.  He was a man of few words who, like most people in his small town, got along with everyone, regardless of race.  He worked as a bricklayer, fixed and raced cars in his spare time and was devoted to his kids.

Peggy Loving Fortune is the only surviving child of Mildred and Richard Loving.  Their two sons have died, but Peggy worked with the filmmakers to tell her parents’ story:

“I love it, even though I cry from the time it starts to the time it ends. And you cry because you miss your parents? I do!””

And people who never knew the Lovings may shed a tear too.  The film begins with a reading of the lower court decision that would ultimately propel this case to the Supreme Court:

“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. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Bernie Cohen wasn’t buying it.  He planned to tell the high court that the right of individuals to choose their own partner in life supercedes the right of a state to say who they can marry.  He also carried a message from Richard Loving:

“When I was getting ready to argue the case before the Supreme Court, we invited Mr. and Mrs. Loving to come hear the arguments, and they both said they did not want to come, so I said to them, ‘Is there anything you would want me to tell the court?’ And he said, ‘Mr. Cohen, just tell the court I love my wife.’  And I did!”

The court ruled, unanimously, in favor of the Lovings – effectively striking down laws in 16 states that still banned inter-racial marriage. Bernie Cohen was ecstatic, and with newfound faith in our system of legal justice, he decided to change careers:

“You know there were no more misegination cases to take, so I didn’t become an expert, but it did help my name recognition when in 1979 I decided to run for the House of Delegates, and I got elected and served for the next 16 years, and that was a very satisfying part of my legal career.”

As a representative from Alexandria, he introduced more than a hundred bills, including those which led to a ban on smoking in public places and established the rights of Virginia residents to have a living will:

Mildred and Richard Loving moved back to Caroline County, where producer Elisabeth James says they planned to live out their lives:

He actually, when they returned back here after the verdict, built a house for Mildred, and his children helped him build it, and he’s also rumored to have brought a pie home for Mildred every day.  I mean he was a romantic!”

During production of the film, Elisabeth James got married, and knowing the Loving’s story made her realize just how special that right was:

“I think I might have been more apt to take it more for granted without working on this story.  I also was reminded that sometimes the heroes in our culture are everyday average people – that you don’t have to be an overly educated activist to change the course of history, and I thought that was a really beautiful reminder about the way that American history has worked.”

Richard Loving was killed when a drunk driver hit the car in which he and Mildred were riding one Saturday night – eight years after they’d come home.  She died in 2008, at the age of 68, of pneumonia – survived by daughter Peggy, eight grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.  The movie – called The Loving Story -- is making the rounds of film festivals. 

It got a long and enthusiastic ovation from people of different races who sat side by side to see the Loving Story in Caroline County, and students viewing the documentary at Charlottesville High School were also moved.  James and Buerski stayed around afterward to answer questions, and they still remember the wise query of one young woman.

“She must have been about 15 or 16, and she came up to the microphone slightly awkwardly and  said, “Why do you think people put boundaries on love?  And it just was so meaningful for us as filmmakers that that message had been conveyed to a whole new generation.”

The Loving Story, produced in partnership with HBO was short-listed for an Academy Award and had its national debut on Valentine’s Day, 2012.