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Mildred Loving, Key Figure in Civil Rights Era, Dies

May 6, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Loving v. Virginia that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Mildred Loving, a black woman married to a white man, had been prosecuted under one such Virginia law in 1958 and challenged it in the high court. Loving died in early May at the age of 68.

GWEN IFILL: Now, remembering a woman, a marriage, and a landmark Supreme Court case. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1958, a young Virginia couple was taken from their bed in the middle of the night and arrested for being married. Mildred Loving was black; her husband, Richard, white.

Their one-year prison sentence was suspended on condition they leave the state and not return together or at the same time for 25 years.

Nine years later, their case led to a Supreme Court ruling that put an end to laws outlawing marriages between men and women of different races.

Richard Loving died in a car crash in 1975. Mildred Loving died on Friday of pneumonia at her Virginia home at age 68.

We remember her now with Bernard Cohen, a longtime friend and one of the lawyers who argued the Lovings’ case before the Supreme Court.

Welcome to you.

BERNARD COHEN, Lawyer for Plaintiffs, Loving v. Virginia: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Take us back to the beginning. Who were Mildred and Richard Loving as young people growing up?

BERNARD COHEN: Mildred and Richard were a couple very much in love living in Caroline County, Virginia. Richard was a construction worker, a bricklayer, who built their home with his own two hands. Mildred was a homemaker, trying to take care of their three children.

JEFFREY BROWN: She became pregnant after they had gotten together. They went to Washington, D.C., to get married. A few weeks later, they were arrested.


JEFFREY BROWN: We have some tape of her describing this, and then I’ll ask you about it. Let’s listen to her describe that evening.

MILDRED LOVING: We were arrested, I guess it was about 2 a.m. And I saw this light, you know. And I woke up, and it was the policeman standing beside the bed. And he told us to get up, that we was under arrest.

And they locked us up. And we were under a $1,000 bond. And his sister got a bond company to get him out. And they told the bonding company, if they tried to get me out, that they would put him back in jail.

So they had the trial. And they told us to leave the state for 25 years. But the way I understood it, the lawyer said that we could come back to visit, you know, when we wanted to. So that Easter, we came back, and they got us again.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s remarkable to watch. Did you know how many states had laws, the miscegenation laws, at the time?

BERNARD COHEN: Well, at the time we took the case on, there were approximately 20 states with laws. By the time we finished the case, there were 16 or 17 left.

Circuitous route to Supreme Court

JEFFREY BROWN: The Lovings moved to Washington, D.C., for a while, but I gather were not happy there and very much wanted to go to Virginia. And it was in 1964 that she wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, which then got referred to you.

BERNARD COHEN: Yes. The Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- that came to be the 1964 act. And she wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, asking if the current law being discussed would be of some help to her and Richard in their situation.

She explained that they had been convicted of marrying one another and were banished from the state of Virginia for 25 years and told not to return together again.

Attorney General Kennedy wrote back to Mrs. Loving and told her to contact the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mrs. Loving, in fact, called the ACLU office in Washington, D.C. And I was probably one of the few, if not the only, Virginia attorney at the time who was a volunteer attorney for the ACLU.

They called me and told me they'd like me to interview the Lovings and gave me their phone number. I called and spoke to them, made an appointment to meet them. I met them in the District of Columbia, so that we didn't risk their getting back into Virginia.

JEFFREY BROWN: You ended up winning this case unanimously. What was the key? Was the key the argument or was the key just getting this case to the Supreme Court?

BERNARD COHEN: There were two keys. I knew we could win the argument, because I felt certain that the Supreme Court, the Warren Supreme Court, after Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights cases, were ready to strike down anti-miscegenation laws.

The problem was the Lovings were convicted in 1958 and didn't come to me until 1963, five years later. And there was no way of getting that conviction appealed. It was too late procedurally.

So I spent many, many months researching the law, talking to other lawyers, trying to find a way, a key to the courthouse, to see if we could overturn their conviction.

JEFFREY BROWN: You told me earlier before we went on here that they were amazed when you told them that this was going to go to the Supreme Court.

BERNARD COHEN: Yes, especially Richard Loving. His jaw literally dropped. And he didn't understand why I couldn't just go to Judge Bazile and tell Judge Bazile to please let the Lovings back in Virginia.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was the state judge in Virginia.


JEFFREY BROWN: What was she like? Everything I read suggests very shy, reticent, didn't talk much about this.

BERNARD COHEN: They both were shy and reticent, but she was the protagonist in the family to push this case forward.

But people would ask her why she was doing this or why she did it. And they were expecting some sort of profound response from her, but that was not to be. At their level of education -- she was a high school graduate -- they were not going to make any profound statement.

But her wisdom and common sense was way beyond her educational level. And she just said, "Richard and I love one another, and we want the right to live together in Virginia and raise our children there." It was a simple response, but it was right at the heart of what she felt.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Bernard Cohen, thank you very much.