"I think marrying who you want is a right no man should have anything to do with. It's a God-given right," said Mildred Loving to ABC News 40 years ago.
A demure young woman from Caroline County, Va., Mildred Jeter Loving never desired attention or publicity. Least of all did she ever imagine she would enter the history books when she married her childhood sweetheart, Richard Loving.
It was 1958. Mildred, a black woman, and Richard, a white man, drove 80 miles to Washington, D.C., to exchange their wedding vows. Shortly after returning home to Virginia, the couple was arrested in the middle of the night for violating the state's law against interracial marriage.
"I guess it was about 2 a.m.," Mildred Loving said in a 1967 ABC News report. "I saw the lights, you know, and I woke up and it was the policeman standing beside the bed and he told us to get out and that we was under arrest."
That night marked the start of a legal battle that eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage across the country.
"I cannot believe it's been 40 years," Loving said in a recent interview with ABC News. "Things have changed for the better." Now 67 years old and a widow, with nine grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, she stills calls Caroline County home.
The Last Laws to Go
The Loving decision struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and 15 other states. In doing so, it put an end to the last piece of state-sanctioned segregation in the country.
Yet for decades after the decision, many states left the unenforceable laws on the books — South Carolina did not remove its prohibitive clause until 1998, and Alabama held on to its ban until 2000. Clearly, even today, a gap remains between what is officially permitted and what is universally accepted. Unsurprisingly, some interracial couples say despite social progress, they still get looks, comments and even hostile threats.
Meant to Be?
"I never had any hostility towards the sheriff or the commonwealth," said Loving of the night she and her husband were arrested. "They were only doing their job, but I'm glad it happened. If they never prosecuted us, none of this would have come to terms. So maybe it was meant to be."
And with a last name perfect for a lawsuit about love, perhaps it was indeed. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now 2.3 million interracial couples in America — approximately seven times the number there were in 1970.
Even Loving seems almost baffled by this growth. "Jim Webb, the congressman from my state, married an Asian lady," she said, referring to the junior senator from Virginia and his wife, Hong Li Webb. "It's still surprising to see it," she said. "But they're human like you and me."
'Loving Day' the Next Great Tradition?
In the last 40 years, the Loving decision has become symbolically important to an ever expanding group: from interracial couples and their mixed race children, to transracial adoptees and their families, to members of the gay, lesbian and transgendered community who are now lobbying for their own marriage rights.
But while the case is still talked about in law schools and by some activist groups, Jungmiwha Bullock, president of the Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans, an advocacy organization for mixed race people, said much of the larger population remains unfamiliar with the history. "We shy away from talking about race in public and when we do it gets sticky and political," she said. "But that doesn't mean we can't start."
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, Bullock has coordinated an international academic conference to take place later this month at Roosevelt University.
Bullock's efforts are not alone. Ken Tanabe, a graphics designer from New York City, wants June 12 to be a universally recognized day called "Loving Day." For the last four years, he has spearheaded annual celebrations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities across the nation.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Tanabe addressed a crowd of 1,000 people at a Lower East Side park in New York City to celebrate Loving Day 2007. "I'd like to take this opportunity to say, 'Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Loving,'" he said over the microphone. "Can I get everyone to join me?' I want you to say the words on the count of three!"
The product of a Japanese-Belgian interracial marriage himself, 29-year-old Tanabe said he only learned about the Loving decision as an adult—while surfing the Web. "I was shocked, stunned, I never heard of the Lovings…" he said. "How did I miss this?"
By throwing parties with an educational and community-building mission, Tanabe hopes the Loving decision will help fight present-day prejudice and become as recognizable to his generation as Brown v. Board of Education and Plessy v. Ferguson.
"Honestly, without the case I don't even know if I would be here because my parents couldn't have gotten married," said Tanabe. "I don't think I would have been born." While a federal holiday may be a long way in the making, Tanabe hopes people across the nation will adopt June 12 and pass it down to generations as a day to remember all that the Lovings fought for.
Banished From Virginia
Following the 1958 arrest, the Lovings were sentenced to a year in jail, but the sentencing was suspended as long the couple left the state and did not return together for 25 years. At the hearing, the county circuit judge Leon Bazile infamously stated that God created the races and placed them on separate continents. "The fact that He separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix," he said.
The Lovings spent the next five years in Washington, D.C., away from friends and family. Longing to return to rural Virginia, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who in turn urged the couple to seek help from the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The only goal I had was to bring my family back to our roots and raise them in the country where I grew up," said Loving. "We hadn't hurt anyone. I didn't understand why we had to leave."
The Last Manifestation of Slavery
Attorney Bernard Cohen, a member of the ACLU, received a short letter from the Lovings explaining how they had three children and could not afford an attorney. "I took the case to put the final nail in the coffin of racism," Cohen said.
He teamed up with attorney Philip Hirschkop, and at no fee, they reopened the case in the Virginia courts, appealing each losing decision until the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It was a terrible time in America," said Cohen. "Racism was ripe and this was the last du jour vestige of racism — there was a lot of de facto racism, but this law was terrible and it was the last on-the-books manifestation of slavery in America."
"We basically did our jobs as lawyers," said Hirschkop. "The case had had its time and we were the stewards to get it to the Supreme Court — it just needed to get there."
Hirschkop notes that while some couples may have folded under the pressure, the Lovings remained united. Looking back, Loving said she took it one day at a time and did a lot of praying.
The court finally made its decision in June 1967, ruling that Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws violated both the equal protection clause and due process clause of the 14th Amendment. "Under our Constitution," the court said, "the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the state."
"We were so very, very happy," said Loving recalling the day. "I can't describe the way I felt. It was as if I'd been free to live my life."
Soon after the family returned to Caroline County, Va. But as fate would have it, the marriage that made the couple famous ended tragically in 1975 when a drunken driver killed Richard in a car accident.
"I just wish that Richard was here to celebrate the anniversary," Loving said.
Still reticent to accept her hero status, she has not yet attended a Loving Day event, but she seems humbled to hear about its existence. "Isn't that something?" she said. "I never new it would be this big!"
What does Mildred Loving hope younger generations will take most from her story? "If you're pursuing something and you know it's right—not to give up," she said. "Everyone has rights."