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Can’t Help Loving

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving * grew up as friends and neighbors in Caroline County, Va. In June 1958, Richard got 18-year-old Mildred pregnant, and the young lovers decided to get married. Ordinarily, that would have been the respectable thing to do. But Mildred was black, Richard was white, and the Commonwealth of Virginia and 15 other states still had laws on the books prohibiting miscegenation. Mildred and Richard had to travel to Washington, D.C., to get married in a civil ceremony. Then they returned home to Central Point, Va.

A few weeks later, the local sheriff literally burst into the newlyweds’ bedroom and arrested them for violating Virginia’s  Racial Integrity Act. (“If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony.”) The Lovings were convicted by a judge who wrote, “Almighty God … did not intend for the races to mix” but agreed to suspend their one-year jail sentence provided they left Virginia and didn’t return for 25 years.

The couple moved to Washington, D.C., and Mildred, hoping to end this exile, pleaded her case in a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to represent the Lovings. In 1967, Loving v. Virginia reached the Supreme Court. Citing the 14th Amendment, the court overturned the Lovings’ conviction and ruled that all anti-miscegenation laws would henceforth be null and void (see the opinion below). “Under our Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren, “the freedom to marry or not marry a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed upon by the state.” At least two subsequent Supreme Court justices have Mildred Loving to thank for the legality of their own interracial marriages

The Lovings returned to Virginia, but, sadly, they enjoyed only a few years together before Richard was killed in a car accident in 1975. Mildred survived the crash and lived an additional 33 years. She died yesterday at 68.

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Correction, May 7, 2008: This article originally misidentified Richard Loving as Thomas. (Return to the corrected sentence.)