In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1960s.
In the aptly named Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia, interracial marriage was legalized freeing millions of Americans to legally wed the spouse of their choice regardless of race — and making a quiet woman from Virginia an international icon for the power of true love in the process.
Born on July 22, 1939 in Central Point, Virginia, Mildred Delores Jeter was an unlikely candidate to change the face of life in America. A mix of African American, European and Native American ethnicities, the tall thin woman — who her classmates lovingly nicknamed ‘String Bean’ — was attending an all-Black school when she unexpectedly met Richard Loving, a white high school student who would become the love of her life. Although the couple didn’t immediately get along (she claims she initially found Richard to be a bit of a know-it-all), the more time they spent together, the more they knew they were meant to be together.
When Mildred found she was pregnant with Richard’s child at the age of 18, the couple joyfully decided it was time to get married. However, because of Virginia’s existing Racial Integrity Act — a law which banned interracial marriage — they also knew their choosing to spend their lives together would be a difficult prospect.
Undeterred, the couple drove to Washington D.C. where they were married (and where interracial law was not illegal), said their vows, and then returned to Virginia where they planned to peacefully start a wedded life.
All of that changed in an instant a few weeks later, however, on the night of July 11, 1958 when armed deputies acting on an anonymous tip burst into the sleeping couple’s bedroom and told the Lovings they were in violation of Virginia law. Although the couple pointed to their marriage certificate which was hanging on the wall in their bedroom, the officers didn’t care — arresting them both and taking them to jail.
Originally sentenced to one-year in prison, a lenient judge suspended their sentence but told them that if they wanted their freedom, they had to move out of state and could not return to Virginia for 25 years. The couple reluctantly agreed and moved to Washington D.C. but were never happy in their new home. Their friends and family — and their lives — were in Virginia and they snuck back often over the years, eventually even moving back into the state where they lived in secret despite the risk of imprisonment.
By 1963, the couple decided they had had enough. Inspired by the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the country, Mildred wrote to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and asked for assistance. Kennedy wrote back suggesting the Lovings contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They did — and the ACLU accepted their case.
ACLU lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop unsuccessfully presented the case before several lower court judges with no luck and the case of Loving v. Virginia eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where oral arguments were heard on April 10, 1967.
In the case, the commonwealth of Virginia continued its argument that a ban on interracial marriages prevented a number of “sociological ills” that could occur if Blacks and whites were allowed to wed. For the Lovings’ legal team, the case was much more simple — a ban on marriage between the races didn’t agree with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Or, even more simply as Richard Loving expressed to his legal team: “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
In a landmark decision on June 12, 1967, the court agreed with that sentiment, striking down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage and making marriage between the races legal across the nation. Writing for the court on their decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren said Virginia’s law was “directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment” and deprived all citizens “liberty without due process of law.”
The couple, no longer forced to live in secrecy, lived together happily until 1975 when Richard was tragically killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident.
Although Mildred rarely gave interviews following the conclusion of her historic case, she told a reporter in 1992 that she never expected to become such a notable public figure. “What happened,” she said, “we really didn’t intend for it to happen. What we wanted, we wanted to come home.”
Still, she went on to become a staunch supporter of marriage equality in all forms and her case eventually even helped to pave the way for the legalization of marriage equality for LGBTQ individuals.
In 2008, on the 40th anniversary of her landmark case she expressed the right for everyone in love to marry saying: “The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone, they have a right to marry.”