On June 12, 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a couple from Virginia – Mildred and Richard Loving – allowing them to remain married and to live within the state of Virginia. Doing so was not a foregone conclusion in Jim Crowe Virginia.
A month after the couple were married in Washington, D.C., in 1958, they were awakened by local police raiding their home. Richard was white and Mildred was black, and interracial marriage was a crime in Virginia and 15 other states, most, but not all, in the South.
So-called anti-miscegenation laws had been on the books in many states since before the Civil War. Illinois had one for the first decades of its existence, repealing it in 1874. In Virginia, the Lovings could face from one to five years in prison for getting married out of state and returning, itself a separate offense.
Richard was an average guy. He was a construction worker. He grew up poor in Virginia in a mixed-race community.
At a time when men like Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were fighting for civil rights with high-flying rhetoric, Richard Loving worked 9 to 5 like the vast majority of Americans did at that time.
After their arrest, the Lovings were exiled from Virginia, officially, although over the next few years they would sneak into the state to be with family and friends as their case made it through the court system. They originally wrote directly to Bobby Kennedy as attorney general, who referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union and began the long trail of appeals that would lead to the Supreme Court.
When the court heard their case, Richard sent a message:
“Tell the Court I love my wife and it is just not fair that I cannot live with her in Virginia.”
For him, there was no a greater principle at stake, no hearkening back to a history of injustice that needed correction. Just let him live with his wife in their home.
Loving Day isn’t the sort of holiday that gets you a day off from work or exchange cards and gifts. (Although, none of those are bad ideas.) But my wife and I celebrate it each year in little ways.
As a white guy, growing up in the suburbs, there wasn’t much from our requisite courses on the Civil Rights Movement that stuck with me.
Always in January, right before a three-day weekend for King’s birthday. The lessons left me saying, “OK. Cool. Glad you guys sorted that out before I came along.”
Knowing my marriage was illegal across large swaths of the country 51 years ago brings it a little closer to home.
I still cannot wrap my head around the absurdity of the laws that were struck down.
History tends to remember the big characters. No one was ever committed to the insane asylum because they thought themselves a plumber or a crossing guard, but you can fill a small auditorium with the people that thought they were Napoleon or Jesus.
Martin Luther King Jr. has his own holiday, Malcolm X has at least one college named after him.
The rank and file of society, those who live through history but never have the statues built for them or roads named for them, deserve recognition too. The Lovings aren’t forgotten, and a series of recent documentaries and one Oscar-nominated film made about their story means they are getting more acclaim than before. They aren’t household names, though.
Richard and Mildred Loving were regular people. They were closer to poor than rich, though by all accounts they worked hard. They didn’t march in the big headlining-grabbing marches of the day. They just wanted to live their lives together.
Richard died just a few years after the case in a car accident. Mildred died in 2008 of pneumonia at age 68.
Although I personally owe them a thank you, their legacy goes far beyond what anyone could have thought in 1967: Their case was used as a precedent in the 2015 Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal across the country.
We often see the system work for the rich and powerful, for the famous, while the rest of us watch from the stands. But today is a chance to celebrate regular folks who did a great big thing.
Happy Loving Day.