In 1964, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy that she couldn’t have realized at the time would launch a campaign for marriage equality that continues 50 years later.
In her letter, Loving asked Kennedy if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might be the vehicle that allow her and her husband to return to their home state of Virginia, from which they had been banished for the “crime” of being married.
Six years earlier, Loving, then a 17-year-old homemaker, and her 23-year-old husband Richard, a bricklayer, had been arrested and jailed for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. She was black; he was white. The Lovings were sentenced to a year in prison — to be suspended if they agreed to leave Virginia and not set foot in the state again for 25 years. “As long as you live you will be known as a felon,” the judge in the case said in issuing his ruling.
Kennedy advised Loving to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU quickly agreed to represent the couple in what would become a landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia (1967). In a unanimous decision, the Court held state bans on interracial marriage to be unconstitutional — 16 states had them at the time — and declared that the “freedom to marry” belongs to all Americans.
“They both were shy and reticent,” Bernard S. Cohen, who as a lawyer in the ACLU’s Washington office argued the case for the Lovings, recalled in 2008. “But she was the protagonist in the family to push this case forward.”
In June 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision, Mildred Loving issued a statement that said, in part:
I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all.
The date of the Supreme Court’s decision, June 12, has become known as Loving Day.
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