When Marriage was a Felony: One Woman’s Fight

On June 2nd, 1958, Mildred Dolores Jeter married her longtime sweetheart Richard Perry Loving in Washington, D.C. She was just 18 and pregnant with their first child. Five weeks after the wedding, on July 14th, Mildred and Richard were roused from their sleep by the county sheriff and two deputies and placed under arrest. Their crime – they violated the Racial Integrity Act forbidding marriage between the races.  It seems the sheriff was alerted by an anonymous tipster of the lawbreaking couple.

Later, Mildred would later tell a reporter that she had no idea she and Richard were breaking the law.  She assumed that her marriage certificate from the nation’s capitol was legal in her home state.  The two spent the night in jail, eventually agreeing to a plea bargain that suspended their one year jail sentence in exchange for their leaving the state for 25 years.  They would be allowed to visit family, but not together.

According to the NY Times Obituary for Mildred Loving, Judge Leon M. Bazile provided one final admonishment, “as long as you live you will be known as a felon.”

In 1963, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking for his help.  He referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union.  In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled the Virginia law was unconstitutional.

Richard died in a car accident in 1975.  Mildred died in 2008 from pneumonia.  Her legacy lives on.

View previously unseen archived footage here which will be part of a new HBO documentary in 2012 by Nancy Buirski.  You’ll note that it was Mildred who wrote to Kennedy.  I think once a woman is tired, there is no stopping her resolve.  Just ask Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer.

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