This recent Friday, 2 May, one of my personal heroes died. A few papers noted her passing, of pneumonia, at the age of 68. Cable news and the networks largely ignored my hero’s death. She did not make the front page. It was not breaking news. What a shame, because Mildred Dolores Loving was one of those quiet American heroes who changed the course of US history and she should not be forgotten.
When she was 18, Mildred Jeter married her childhood sweetheart, Richard Loving. This fact would normally no more raise an eyebrow than any other small-town love story. The couple married in Washington, D.C. then returned home to Virginia to be near their families. Big deal, right? Except it was 1958, Richard was white, and Mildred was “colored”, in the parlance of the time—a mixed-race person of African-American, Cherokee, and Rappahannock descent.
The consequences of this love story would not soon be forgotten.
The Lovings were arrested in the wee hours of 11 July 1958, just weeks after their marriage. They were dragged from their bed by the sheriff and his deputies and charged with violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. Richard spent a night jail, Mildred, several. This discrepancy in their jail terms was not explained.
In a plea bargain, the Lovings pled guilty to violating Virginia’s so-called ‘Racial Integrity Act’, and their one-year prison sentence was suspended under the condition that they leave the state and never set foot in it again as a couple; otherwise they would be arrested and imprisoned for 25 years each.
Presiding Judge Leon M. Bazile explained in his opinion, “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.”
The judge did not explain why, if this were the case, all the European-Americans didn’t just go back to Europe and allow the Native Americans to have their country back since it was God’s will, apparently, that white people never set foot on the continent. Nor did he explain what exactly is the ‘malay’ race. Apparently, when Almighty God was handing out the brains, Judge Bazile was waiting in the wrong line.
However, the Lovings did not give up their belief that they had a right to love each other as husband and wife. At the time 16 states still had anti-miscegenation laws, and despite Brown v. the Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in 1954, America was not yet ready to de-segregate its bedrooms, at least not legally. As we all know, since the first European set foot on America’s soil, there’s been a lot of mixing in American’s collective, national bloodline.
But in the past, the Sally Hemings, the Sacajaweas, the China Mary’s of America did not have the right to insist upon legal status for themselves or their children. Women of color were good enough for sex but not for wifehood. Their bastard children had no right to inheritance, acceptance, not even acknowledgment. America is a Hapa Nation all right, mixed to its very core, but it hadn’t been a nation of legal Hapas until Mildred Loving got fed up and fired up.
Mildred and Richard Loving meeting with an ACLU attorney
In 1963 Mildred Loving wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. She explained her situation and asked for help. He referred her case to the ACLU.
The first roadblock appeared when their lawyers discovered that the Lovings had been forced to give up their right of appeal when they accepted their plea bargain with the Devil. Even the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act didn’t help the Lovings, at first. Although the Act had struck down all the nation’s anti-miscegenation laws, the state of Virginia refused to comply. An appeals court even ruled against the Lovings, siding with the lower court’s opinion.
Finally in 1967, the US Supreme Court in the aptly titled decision, Loving v. Virginia, ruled that Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act was in violation of federal law and struck it down. Thus on 12 June 1967, the Lovings could finally move back to Virginia, close to their families.
Richard Loving died in 1975 of a car accident. All together, the Lovings had three children. All legally theirs, not bastards, not embarrassments, not hidden history, but rather fully ‘legitimate’, legal children. Just like me. My parents are of different races, my father Chinese, my mother Irish-American. I am beholden to Mildred Loving. Because of her tenacity, I too am legally my parents’ daughter in all 50 states. When I was growing up, no one could take me away and put me in a foster home, declare me a bastard, deny my rights.
Mildred Loving once said she never considered herself a hero. In a rare interview with the Associated Press last year, she said simply of her landmark victory for civil rights, ‘It wasn’t my doing. It was God’s work.’
In the movies, they tell us heroes are men in spandex with C.G.I.-generated superpowers. They fly through the air on spider webs or rocket-powered Iron Men suits. They grapple up skyscrapers and race through the streets of our cities in souped-up Batmobiles. They are white. They are male. They are really, really violent.
But in real life, Mildred Loving is a true American hero. And she fought for something so basic, so human, that she has touched all of our lives: she fought for the right to love. When asked by an interviewer if she thought gays and lesbians should have the same right to marry that she had fought for, she issued a statement of strong support, urging the Supreme Court to extend this basic civil right to all Americans.
Mildred Loving. Hero. Savior. Woman warrior. Legal wife and mother. Rest in peace.