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Remembering Mildred Loving

Mildred Jeter Loving has passed away.

You may have never heard of her, but she and her husband left their mark on this country in the struggle for equality during the Civil Rights Movement. In June of 1958 the then 18 year old Mildred Jeter did something controversial. She did something that sent reverberations down through the years and is written in the some history books. She did something illegal. She said “I do.”

Mildred, a young black woman, married her fiancee Richard Loving, a white man, in the District of Columbia because interracial marriage was illegal in their native Virginia. Upon marriage, the couple returned to Virginia and were arrested for cohabitation as a married couple within weeks. In January 1959, they were convicted and given a sentence of 25 years in jail, but the judge suspended the sentence upon condition that they leave the state and never return together for 25 years. Several years later, the Lovings sued Virginia to overturn that ruling. After losing their case on appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Lovings appeaed to the Supreme Court of the United States, who took the case and heard the case in 1967.

On 12 June 1967, the Supreme Court announced its decision. Chief Justice Earl Warren authored the decision for a unanimous Court: not only did Virginia’s miscegenation law violate the Lovings right to equality protected by the Equal Protection Clause, it also violated their fundamental right to marry as protected by the Due Process Clause. The resulting decision of Loving v Vriginia struck down the laws of Virginia and 15 other states that banned interracial marriage and had prompted one state, Maryland, to repeal its miscegenation law while the case was still pending. It transformed marriage in this country. Since the founding of the American colonies and the first importation of Africans as indentured servants and slaves, marriage between blacks and whites were illegal in America with Maryland instituting the first criminal law to that effect in 1664. They were among some of the oldest laws in America.

Last June, for the 40th Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v Virginia, Mildred Loving released a statement in which she not only speaks of the importance of marriage in the context for racial divisions, but of marriage for all, including same-sex couples.

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.

We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the “crime” of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed. The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared: “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.” He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.

We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn’t have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” a “basic civil right.”

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. 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.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

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. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.

Today, we mourn the passing of Mildred Loving as she rejoins her beloved Richard who passed away in a car accident in 1975. Today, Mildred Loving’s struggle for full equality before the law continues for the hundreds of thousands same sex couples in this country who seek to marry. Today, we should all recommit ourselves in our support for “the freedom to marry for all.”

crossposted at DKos

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