In early May, Mildred Loving, a widow, grandmother and great-grandmother, quietly passed away at her home in rural Caroline County, Va. Yet her passing was noted across the country because Mrs. Loving, who was Black, and her late husband, Richard, who was White, made history when their struggle to have their marriage recognized led to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling overturning laws in Virginia and other states that banned interracial marriage. But the Lovings, who shunned the spotlight, always made it clear that they never set out to be social revolutionaries. They loved each other, wanted to marry, and beyond that, as Mrs. Loving said, "It was God's work."
Mrs. Loving first met her husband in the early 1950s when she was 11 and he was 17. In Central Point, the small community where they both grew up, many Black and White families had lived closely together for decades. The Lovings became young sweethearts, and in 1958, when Mildred became pregnant, they decided to get married. They drove to Washington, D.C., for their marriage license, and Mrs. Loving later said she thought they were doing that because less paperwork was required there. But Richard apparently understood something she didn't: Getting a marriage license as a mixed-race couple would have been illegal and impossible in their home state.
Mr. Loving may not have known how the state of Virginia would treat legal interracial marriages that had been performed elsewhere, but five weeks after their wedding, both Lovings received a very literal rude awakening: Acting on a "tip," sheriff's deputies surrounded their bed with flashlights at two in the morning demanding to know why they were there together.
Their reply that they were husband and wife made no difference. The Lovings were arrested, held in jail for several nights, and charged with cohabitation and violating Virginia's Racial Integrity Act. Under a plea bargain, in order to avoid a year-long jail sentence, they were forced to leave Virginia and were prohibited from returning to the state together for 25 years.
The Lovings settled in Washington, D.C., and began raising a family there, but quickly missed the small town where they had spent nearly their entire lives. Five years later, inspired by the March on Washington and the wave of new civil rights laws, Mrs. Loving decided to write to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to ask if any of the new legislation would allow them to return to Virginia. He referred the Lovings' case to the ACLU, where over the next few years, lawyers helped take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court justices ruled 9-0 that Virginia's law and all others like it were unconstitutional.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving soon returned to their hometown with their three children, although their own happiness ended in tragedy just a few years later. In 1975, Mr. Loving was killed and Mrs. Loving lost the sight in one eye in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. But the Lovings had paved the way for thousands of other couples like themselves, who weren't marrying "outside of their race" but were marrying the people they loved. Thanks to God's work and the Lovings' love, my husband Peter and I were the first interracial couple to be married in Virginia after the Supreme Court decision—40 years ago—in July 1968.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund.