Wednesday, May 07, 2008

RIP Mildred Loving


Mildred and Richard Loving fought the law against interracial marriage and won. As a black woman married to a white man, I owe a debt to Mrs. Loving. A couple of things about this on my mind this morning: Mildred was arrested for marrying a white man (spending more nights in jail than he did) and 33 years later I married my husband at the Denver County Courthouse in front of a judge with the full support of the law. And now the son of a white woman and a black man just might be our next president. The times they are a changin'.
Here's Mrs. Loving's obit from the NY Times (I'm proud to note she agreed with me on the rights for everyone, gay and straight, to be able to marry):

Mildred Loving, a black woman whose anger over being banished from Virginia for marrying a white man led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling overturning state miscegenation laws, died on May 2 at her home in Central Point, Va. She was 68. Peggy Fortune, her daughter, said the cause was pneumonia.

Mildred and Richard Loving, in 1967, were arrested in Virginia. The Supreme Court ruling, in 1967, struck down the last group of segregation laws to remain on the books — those requiring separation of the races in marriage. The ruling was unanimous, its opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who in 1954 wrote the court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregated public schools unconstitutional. In Loving v. Virginia, Warren wrote that miscegenation laws violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. “We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race,” he said.

By their own widely reported accounts, Mrs. Loving and her husband, Richard, were in bed in their modest house in Central Point in the early morning of July 11, 1958, five weeks after their wedding, when the county sheriff and two deputies, acting on an anonymous tip, burst into their bedroom and shined flashlights in their eyes. A threatening voice demanded, “Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?”

Mrs. Loving answered, “I’m his wife.” Mr. Loving pointed to the couple’s marriage certificate hung on the bedroom wall. The sheriff responded, “That’s no good here.” The certificate was from Washington, D.C., and under Virginia law, a marriage between people of different races performed outside Virginia was as invalid as one done in Virginia. At the time, it was one of 16 states that barred marriages between races.
After Mr. Loving spent a night in jail and his wife several more, the couple pleaded guilty to violating the Virginia law, the Racial Integrity Act. Under a plea bargain, their one-year prison sentences were suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return together or at the same time for 25 years.
Judge Leon M. Bazile, in language Chief Justice Warren would recall, said that if God had meant for whites and blacks to mix, he would have not placed them on different continents. Judge Bazile reminded the defendants that “as long as you live you will be known as a felon.”
They paid court fees of $36.29 each, moved to Washington and had three children. They returned home occasionally, never together. But times were tough financially, and the Lovings missed family, friends and their easy country lifestyle in the rolling Virginia hills.
By 1963, Mrs. Loving could stand the ostracism no longer. Inspired by the civil rights movement and its march on Washington, she wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and asked for help. He wrote her back, and referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The A.C.L.U. took the case. Its lawyers, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, faced an immediate problem: the Lovings had pleaded guilty and had no right to appeal. So they asked Judge Bazile to set aside his original verdict. When he refused, they appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the lower court, and the case went to the United States Supreme Court.
Mr. Cohen recounted telling Mr. Loving about various legal theories applying to the case. Mr. Loving replied, “Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
Mildred Delores Jeter’s family had lived in Caroline County, Va., for generations, as had the family of Richard Perry Loving. The area was known for friendly relations between races, even though marriages were forbidden. Many people were visibly of mixed race, with Ebony magazine reporting in 1967 that black “youngsters easily passed for white in neighboring towns.”
Mildred’s mother was part Rappahannock Indian, and her father was part Cherokee. She preferred to think of herself as Indian rather than black.
Mildred and Richard began spending time together when he was a rugged-looking 17 and she was a skinny 11-year-old known as Bean. He attended an all-white high school for a year, and she reached 11th grade at an all-black school.
When Mildred became pregnant at 18, they decided to do what was elsewhere deemed the right thing and get married. They both said their initial motive was not to challenge Virginia law.
“We have thought about other people,” Mr. Loving said in an interview with Life magazine in 1966, “but we are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”
In his classic study of segregation, “An American Dilemma,” Gunnar Myrdal wrote that “the whole system of segregation and discrimination is designed to prevent eventual inbreeding of the races.” But miscegenation laws struck deeper than other segregation acts, and the theory behind them leads to chaos in other facets of law. This is because they make any affected marriage void from its inception. Thus, all children are illegitimate; spouses have no inheritance rights; and heirs cannot receive death benefits.
“When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1958. Virginia’s law had been on the books since 1662, adopted a year after Maryland enacted the first such statute. At one time or another, 38 states had miscegenation laws. State and federal courts consistently upheld the prohibitions, until 1948, when the California Supreme Court overturned California’s law.
Though the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in the Loving case struck down miscegenation laws, Southern states were sometimes slow to change their constitutions; Alabama became the last state to do so, in 2000.
Mr. Loving died in a car accident in 1975, and the Lovings’ son Donald died in 2000. In addition to her daughter, Peggy Fortune, who lives in Milford, Va., Mrs. Loving is survived by her son, Sidney, of Tappahannock, Va.; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Loving stopped giving interviews, but last year issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of the announcement of the Supreme Court ruling, urging that gay men and lesbians be allowed to marry.

14 comments:

Sustenance Scout said...

Carleen, thank you SO MUCH for posting about Mildred Loving. I read about her passing the other day and wanted to post about her; now I can simply link to your lovely tribute. K.

Julie Layne said...

2000 before the law was changed on the books in Alabama?!?! I lived there from 1997 to 1998 and had no idea. Wow. I shouldn't be surprised, though. We lived in a small town and threatening calls were received at our church when African American children showed up at Vacation Bible School. Fortunately, we had a pastor who told the callers to take a hike. Alas, someone must have gotten to the families directly, because they didn't come back. Sigh.

Come to think of it, I do not recall knowing of any interracial couples when we lived there. It seems fairly commonplace here in DFW, but probably not so much in other areas of Texas.

What an inspiring story this was. Thanks for sharing it with us.

We've come a long way, and yet so far to go, huh?

Ello said...

CArleen, I read this case over a decade ago in my Civil Rights class in law school. Thanks for bringing it back for me. What an amazing post. What an amazing tribute. I am so grateful to you that I read it today.

Lafreya said...

What a wonderful post. It is so important to remember the heriones whose shoulders we stand on.

Lisa said...

Interracial couples are so commonplace now that I think we take it for granted. It's hard to believe that so recently a person could be and was jailed for simply loving another person. I applaud Ms. Loving for speaking out on behalf of the gay community.

I hold a pretty non-standard view on marriage because I look at it as a legal contract that provides the participants with certain rights with regard to each other. Therefore, I think any two people should have the right to enter into a legal arrangement that affords them the rights and benefits that a married couple has. I don't even limit this to gay or straight couples.

For example, if my best friend and I were to end up widowed or alone later in life, why couldn't we establish a legal "marriage" that would allow us to make medical decisions for each other and establish a by-law transfer of assets should one of us die? Why should these legal rights be limited to people who are austensibly sexually intimate with each other?

Clearly, a growing number of couples choose not to have children, so it isn't about that, right?

Sustenance Scout said...

Lisa, what an original and common-sensical approach. Makes perfect sense, really, since fewer people have extended family members around who'd be willing to take on such responsibilities. Maybe you should start another blog (j/k!!!). K.

Carleen Brice said...

Wow Lisa. I think that's an excellent idea, but do 2 people who aren't intimate, just friends, require a marriage to do that? If I named my best friend as my medical/legal power of attorney and executor of my will(should my husband and brothers die before me) I wonder if anyone would challenge that the way they challenge same-sex couples?

Lisa said...

Well, I think that's exactly the argument that same sex couples get into about all of the things that marriage covers automatically. There are a few dozen things that a marriage certificate automatically grants you, and you can also go out and establish the same rights, etc. with powers of attorney -- but there are still lots of things you can't do. Only a spouse can collect a pension, or in most cases be designated for coverage under medical insurance, etc. I just figure that the privileges afforded by marriage should be extended to everyone or no one. Why should someone who gets married at 15 or someone who gets married 5 times in a row continue to have benefits that other people can't? I think each person should get to choose one other person to establish this legal relationship with, no matter who it is or what the reason. Ironically, Scott and I have never gotten married, but we file a joint tax return and represent ourselves as married (common law), so even though we've gone out of our way not to "get married", we get to take advantage of those things. I think it's just a question of fairness and call me unromantic, but I think the man/woman marriage model is outdated. If you could never divorce it wouldn't be, but since you can, what is the real point?

Yasmin said...

The more I'm an American the more horror stories I hear about my dear country...I remember hearing about this couple years ago primarily because my family is filled with mixed marriages...I remember being appalled then...appalled when I bought the book a few years ago...and appalled now!
Thanks for sharing sis and I'm glad we've come a long way but we still have a long way to go...hopefully Obama becoming President will be the beginning of a NEW DAY.
xoxo

Carleen Brice said...

Here's to a new day!!

Verbal Vixen (T Caldwell) said...

Great post Carleen, and great comments.

I especially like Lisa's idea.

Rest in peace, Mildred Loving.

Demon Hunter said...

Thanks for posting this, Carleen. I saw the movie a few years ago. A story we all need to remember. :*)

Earth Angel said...

I've always been awed by the Loving's, and that this was going on just a few years b4 I was born. Amazing the progress we have made as a human race in such a short time. I'll try to remind myself of that every time I think of how far we haven't come. Thank you for this post.

Mary Ann said...

This is a beautiful tribute. I've been catching up on your postings and loved the "motherless" posting, too.