Richard Loving Biography

Civil Rights Activist(1933–1975)
In 1967, Richard Loving and his wife Mildred successfully defeated Virginia's ban on interracial marriage via a famed Supreme Court ruling that had nationwide implications. Their story is the subject of the 2016 film 'Loving.'

Synopsis

Richard Loving was born on October 29, 1933, in Central Point, Virginia. A construction worker and avid drag-car racer, he later married Mildred Jeter. With Richard being of English and Irish descent and Mildred of African-American and Native-American heritage, their union violated Virginia's Racial Integrity Act. The couple was ordered to leave the state and their case was eventually taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law, which also ended the remaining ban on interracial marriages in other states. The Lovings then lived as a legal, married couple in Virginia until Richard’s death in 1975. Mildred died in 2008. 

Background

Richard Perry Loving was born on October 29, 1933, in Central Point, Virginia, part of Caroline County. In stark contrast to the segregation found in other Southern communities, the rural Caroline Country was known for its racial mixing, with people of different ethnic backgrounds openly socializing together, a dynamic which informed Loving’s personal connections. As a young man, he had a passion for revved up engines and drag car racing, winning prizes, and earned a living as a laborer and construction worker.

Marriage, Arrest and Exile

Of Irish and English descent, Loving met Mildred Jeter, who was of African-American and Native-American descent, when he was 17 and she was 11. He first visited her home to hear the music played by her siblings, with Mildred not initially taking to Richard’s personality. Yet a friendship developed which eventually lead to a romantic relationship. Mildred became pregnant at 18 and the two decided to get married.

Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which forbade interracial marriages, barred their union. With Richard knowing that he and his bride would be unable to get a license, the couple travelled to Washington, D.C. on June 2, 1958 to be wed and then returned to Virginia, staying with Mildred’s family. Several weeks later, the local sheriff, who is believed to have received a tip, entered the couple’s bedroom at around 2 a.m. and took both Richard and Mildred to a Bowling Green jail for violating state law which prohibited interracial marriages. Richard was allowed to post bail the next day while Mildred was held for several nights.

In January 1959, the Lovings accepted a plea bargain. Judge Leon Bazile ruled that the prison sentence for the couple would be suspended as long as they didn’t return to Virginia together or at the same time for 25 years. Effectively exiled from their home community, the Lovings lived for a time in Washington, D.C., but found that city life was not for them, especially after an accident involving one of their children. The couple attempted to return to their hometown for a family visit only to be arrested again and would later secretly reestablish residence in Caroline County.

Bobby Kennedy and ACLU

In 1963, Mildred, who was known for having a quiet dignity and thoughtfulness, wrote to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy for help and guidance. His office then recommended that she get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union. Two ACLU lawyers, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, took on the Lovings' case later that year. During the proceedings, Richard, a generally silent fellow, was adamant about his devotion to his wife and would hear no talk of divorce. The Lovings story would also be presented in a March 1966 LIFE Magazine feature with photos by Grey Villet.

Historic Supreme Court Decision

Upon Bazile’s original ruling being upheld in appeals, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the highest bench in the land unanimously struck down Virginia's law, thus allowing the couple to legally return home while also ending the ban on interracial marriages in other states. The court held that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute violated both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the court, stating marriage is a basic civil right and to deny this right on a basis of race is “directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment” and deprives all citizens “liberty without due process of law.”

With the Lovings able to openly live in their desired community, Richard built a home down the road from his extended family. He and Mildred continued to raise their three children.

Death and Legacy

Richard Loving was killed in an automobile accident on June 29, 1975, in the county of his birth when his car was struck by another vehicle operated by a drunk driver who ran a stop sign. Mildred, who was also in the car, lost sight in her right eye.

An unofficial holiday honoring the Lovings’ triumph and multiculturalism, called Loving Day, is celebrated on June 12, when the prohibition against mixed race marriages was lifted from every state constitution. After a 1996 TV-movie, another work on the couple's life, the Nancy Buirski documentary The Loving Story, was released in 2011. The big-screen biopic Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, was released in 2016. The film has received a groundswell of critical acclaim and is considered an Oscar contender.

Click here for a teaching resource (grades 6-12) on the Loving case.  

Mildred Richard Loving Photo

Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple, fought Virginia's law against interracial marriages. (Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)

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