WASHINGTON - Mildred Jeter Loving, 68, a black woman whose refusal to accept Virginia's ban on interracial marriage led to a US Supreme Court decision in 1967 that struck down similar laws across the country, died of pneumonia Friday at her home in Milford, Va.
The Loving vs. Virginia decision overturned longstanding legal and social prohibitions against miscegenation in the United States. Celebrated at the time, the landmark case sunk to obscurity until a 1996 made-for-television movie and a 2004 book revived interest in how the young, small-town black and white couple changed history.
A modest homemaker, Mrs. Loving never thought she had done anything extraordinary. "It wasn't my doing," Loving told the Associated Press in a rare interview a year ago. "It was God's work."
Today, according to the Census Bureau, there are 4.3 million interracial couples in the nation.
That wasn't true in 1958, when then-17-year-old Mildred Jeter and her childhood sweetheart, Richard Loving, a 23-year-old white construction worker, drove 90 miles north to marry in the District of Columbia. Known by her nickname, "Bean," she was pregnant with the first of their three children.
Mrs. Loving later said she didn't realize that it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to wed, although her husband might have. "I think he thought [if] we were married, they couldn't bother us," she said.
Nevertheless, when they returned to Central Point, Va., between Richmond and Spotsylvania, to set up their home, someone called the law.
By their own widely reported accounts, the couple were in bed in the early morning of July 11, 1958, when the county sheriff and two deputies 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."
Richard Loving pointed to the couple's marriage certificate 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 Richard 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.
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix," Judge Leon M. Bazile ruled.
He reminded the defendants that "as long as you live you will be known as a felon."
The couple 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 country lifestyle in the rolling Virginia hills.
By 1963, Mildred 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 ACLU 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 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 US Supreme Court.
Cohen recounted telling Richard Loving about various legal theories applying to the case. Richard 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."
The Supreme Court decision, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, was unanimous. "There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause," the court said.
Mildred Delores Jeter had grown up in Caroline County, Va., where her family had lived for generations. The area was known for friendly relations between races, although 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 thought of herself as Indian.
After the court decision, she and her husband moved back to Caroline County. Richard Loving was killed in 1975 when a drunken driver struck their car. Mildred Loving, who was in the car, lost her right eye in the collision.
A 1996 Showtime movie about the case, "Mr. and Mrs. Loving," told their story.
"None of it was very true," she said in 2007. "The only part of it right was I had three children."
Phyl Newbeck, a Vermont lawyer, saw the movie and wanted to read more about it. No one had written a book, so she sought out Mrs. Loving for interviews but ran into the same shyness that others encountered. "She was very quiet. She really didn't like to talk about herself," Newbeck said yesterday.
Her book, "Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers," was published in 2004. "To her death, she never felt she had done anything noteworthy. She never considered herself a pioneer."
Others did. Mrs. Loving's church, St. Stephens Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Va., gave her a certificate recognizing the trailblazing lawsuit.
"The preacher at my church classified me with Rosa Parks," she told the
A son, Donald, died in 2000.
Mrs. Loving leaves a daughter, Peggy Fortune of Central Point; a son, Sidney, of Tappahannock, Va.; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
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