Setting the Record Straight On The Case of Loving V. Virginia
By: Arica L. Coleman
The recent death of Bernard Cohen, one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs Richard and Mildred Loving in the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which overturned proscriptions against interracial marriage in the United States in 1967, has once again thrust the case back into the headlines. In 1958, Richard Loving a “white” man, and Mildred Jeter a “colored” woman, violated several Virginia codes when they married in the District of Columbia, where interracial marriage was legal, and afterward returned to their home in Caroline Country, Virginia, where interracial marriage was illegal, to live as husband and wife. The couple was taken to jail, tried for the crime of being married, and then banished from Virginia for 25 years.
Fittingly, the 86 year old Cohen who this month of Parkinson’s Disease has been eulogized for cementing his place in American legal history at the young age of thirty-three when he and his co-counsel Philip Hirschkop rocked the Supreme Court with a two-pronged legal argument against state-imposed anti- interracial marriage laws which included a poignant direct quote from Richard Loving who told the attorneys, “Tell the court I love my life, and it is just unfair that I cannot live with her in Virginia.” The Court unanimously agreed.
Yet, in recounting the events which led up to the couple’s triumphant victory of love over hate, the storyline in these accounts follows the popular narrative of the Loving story. But there is more to this case than many have supposed. This article highlights a few unknown facts and debunks some myths about this historic case.
First, many assume that the Lovings made the decision to marry when it was discovered that Mildred was pregnant. While that is correct, what many do not know is that Mildred was carrying the couple’s first child, but the oldest child Sidney C. Jeter, who kept his mother’s maiden name his entire life was from a previous relationship. Mildred stated on numerous occasions that she “married the only man she ever loved.” That much was true, but Richard was not the first man with whom she had been sexually involved. Sidney was born on January 27, 1957, almost a year and a half before the Loving’s married on June 2, 1958. The child Mildred was carrying when the couple married was Donald, her second son, but the couple’s first. Donald Loving was born on October 8, 1958, four months after the marriage. Moreover, Sidney identified Richard as “stepfather” on his Social Security application in 1973.
Second, many assume the couple married in Washington, D.C. because interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia. While this is also true, there is more to the story. Due to Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which forbade interracial marriage, Richard and Mildred married in the District of Columbia. The couple framed and displayed their marriage license on the back bedroom wall of Mildred’s parent’s house where the newlyweds slept; but, the Lovings also married in D.C. because Virginia law forbade anyone from racially identifying as Indian on any government documents, except for those residing on the reservations in King William County, the oldest Indian reservations in the United States owned by the Pamunkey Indians (federally recognized) and the Mattaponi Indians (state-recognized). As demonstrated in my 2016 TIME article “What You Didn’t Know About Loving v. Virginia,” the couple’s Central Point community overwhelmingly identified as white or Indian. It was common practice for Virginia residents who claimed an Indian identity to marry in the nation’s capital. Richard and Mildred’s names and racial identity on the marriage license reads “Richard Perry Loving, ‘white’; Mildred Delores Jeter, ‘Indian’.” Hence, while many assume that Richard Loving was fighting for the honor of a Black woman, he on the other-hand believed he had married an Indian woman as Mildred Loving, like many residents in Central Point Caroline County Virginia denied Black ancestry. Notwithstanding, the marriage license and the racial identity she chose were invalid in the Virginia Commonwealth.
Third, the Lovings were arrested not once but twice. The first incident occurred on July 11, 1958. At approximately 2 a.m., Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks and two of his deputies barged into the Lovings’ bedroom (in those days residents of rural communities did not lock their doors) and arrested them for the crime of miscegenation. On January 6, 1959, the Lovings, represented by Caroline County, Virginia lawyer Frank Beazley, entered a guilty plea before Judge Leon Bazile. The judge suspended the couple’s one-year prison sentence on condition that they immediately leave Virginia and not return to the state together for 25 years. They could return separately to visit their respective families.
The Lovings were arrested a second time in March of 1959 when Donald, who was delivered by his paternal grandmother Lola Loving and midwife, was 5 months old. Attorney Beazley had misinformed the couple that the judge’s ruling allowed them to return to Virginia together for family visits if they did not sleep in the same house. The couple was taken into custody while visiting Richard’s parents during the Easter holiday weekend. However, Beazley took responsibility for the error and the Lovings were released and immediately returned to D. C.
Fourth, many believe that the Lovings’ subsequent legal case which bought the issue of anti-miscegenation laws to the high court began with a letter Mildred wrote to Robert Kennedy who was the Attorney General for the United States Department of Justice, a position he assumed under his brother President John Kennedy. According to family lore Mildred, sick of urban life, wrote Kennedy about the family’s dilemma. In his written response to her, he recommended that she write to the ACLU. However, there is no documentary evidence of any correspondence between Mildred Loving and Robert Kennedy. Not only was I unable to locate these documents during my many years of research, but Attorneys Cohen and Hirschkop also assured me that they did not have any documents from Kennedy in their possession. In 2016 I received from Hirschkop via email attachment, a copy of the letter Mildred had written to the ACLU dated June 20, 1963. In that letter, Mildred stated, “We wrote to the Attorney General, he suggested that we get in touch with you.” But to date correspondence between Loving and Kennedy has yet to be located.
In 1965, Judge Bazile denied Cohen’s motion to vacate his earlier ruling which banished the Loving from living in the state of Virginia as husband and wife; the judge infamously concluded, “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 irony that he was defending the right to marriage equality for a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Loving was not lost on Cohen who often commented about it in his many conversations about the historic case. The irony that he died on October 12, 2020, on the federal holiday known as Columbus Day should not be lost on us.