As 2008 draws near, we naturally have much to reflect upon, from the momentous election and our troubled economy to the War in Iraq and the loss of people who touched our lives in signficant ways. The New York Times Magazine did a magnificent job honoring some of those extraordinary individuals who died in 2008. One person featured in the Sunday Times deserves special mention as we head into the New Year: 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.
Mildred Loving married Richard Loving, a white man, in the District of Columbia in 1958. After the wedding, they returned to their home in Virginia where they were promptly jailed under Virginia law for “cohabitating as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” Mildred spent five nights in a rat-infested jail, while Richard spent only one day in jail. The Lovings pled guilty and were sentenced to one year in jail, which the court suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia. After living apart from her Virginia-based family for four years, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to the Washington branch of the A.C.L.U. seeking legal help. She explained: “We know we can’t live [in Virginia]” because “my husband is White [and] I am part negro, & part indian” but “we would like to go back once and awhile to visit our families and friends.” The Virginia judge told them that if they set foot, together, in the state again, they would be jailed for a year, noted Ms. Loving.
As our law students know well, Ms. Loving’s letter inspired two young civil rights lawyers to take up her case, which ended in 1967 with Chief Justice Earl Warren’s ruling striking down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law on the grounds that “the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” But something that may be overlooked in thinking about Loving v. Virginia and Ms. Loving’s role in history is the extraordinary bravery that Ms. Loving possessed. Mildred Loving wrote that letter to the A.C.L.U. in June 1963, the same month that Governor George Wallace made good on his “segregation forever” pledge by gathering state police to prevent two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering the University of Alabama. No doubt, she knew about the Ku Klux Klan’s bombings, lynchings, and murders throughout the South, including Virginia. Yet, despite the very real possibility that challenging her inability to return to Virginia might endanger her life, she wrote the letter anyway. And she remained steadfast to the ideals of social justice until the very end of her life, when she publicly stated her support of gay marriage on the 40th anniversary of the Loving ruling last year. Mildred Loving, R.I.P.