Love Supreme: An Interracial Romance Triumphs in 1960s Virginia
On March 18, 1966, LIFE magazine published a feature under the quietly chilling headline, “The Crime of Being Married.” The article, illustrated with photographs by LIFE’s Grey Villet, told the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a married interracial couple battling Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. Villet’s warm, intimate pictures revealed a close-knit family, including children and grandparents, living their lives in opposition to a patently unjust law — but also captured eloquent moments, gestures and expressions that affirmed just how heavily their defiance weighed on the very private couple.
The LIFE article and Villet’s images, read and viewed today, assume a poignancy and power perhaps unimagined by the magazine’s readers in 1966. The couple, after all, was awaiting an appeal on a court ruling that had, in effect, banished them from their hometown. At the time, the Lovings were adamant (in their own unassuming way) that they had no interest in being cast as Civil Rights heroes. All they wanted was to live their lives and raise their children in peace. But decades later, we know what the people in Villet’s published photographs — a frowning Richard Loving; Mildred Loving, her eyes downcast — might have hoped and prayed for, but could never ultimately count on: namely, that a year later, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court finally and unanimously decided the case of Loving v. Virginia, ruling against the state and finding all anti-miscegenation laws across the country unconstitutional.
Here, as the United States Supreme Court tackles the issue of same-sex marriage, LIFE.com presents a gallery of Grey Villet photographs of the Lovings, their family and their friends, along with the text of the original magazine story (below).
— Lily Rothman, @lilyrothman
What follows is text from the original article from the March 18, 1966, issue of LIFE:
“The Crime of Being Married”
She is Negro, he is white, and they are married. This puts them in a kind of legal purgatory in their home state of Virginia, which specifically forbids interracial marriage.
Last week Mildred and Richard Loving lost one more round in a seven-year legal battle, when the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s anti-miscegenation law. Once again they and their three children were faced with the loss of home and livelihood.
Both Lovings were born and raised in the isolated hill country around Caroline County, north of Richmond, where there has always been an easy-going tolerance on the race question. It stirred little fuss when the couple culminated a long and agonized courtship by traveling to Washington, D.C., to get married in 1958. But five weeks later the county sheriff routed them out of bed at 2 a.m. and took them off to jail. A local judge handed down a year’s sentence but suspended it if they agreed to leave the state immediately and stay away for 25 years.
Badly frightened and unaware of their right of appeal, the Lovings lived five years of hand-to-mouth exile in Washington. Even so, they were re-arrested when they returned for a visit to Mildred’s family. Released on bail, they wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, asking for help. This led the American Civil Liberties Union to take an interest in their case. The Lovings decided to take up permanent residence in Virginia and fight. Now their case will return to federal court — where Loving v. Virginia may well become the next big landmark in civil rights.
Richard and Mildred’s families have lived in Caroline County for generations. They were friends and neighbors when the two were children, and they still are. In fact, Richard’s mother, a licensed midwife, delivered all three of Mildred’s children.
“It never was like a lot of other places,” Richard explains. “It doesn’t matter to folks around here. They just want to live and be left alone. That’s the way I feel.” A family of simple wants and needs, the Lovings keep largely to themselves. Richard keeps busy as a $5-per-hour construction worker. On weekends he likes to go drag racing in a souped-up car, which he owns with two boyhood friends, both Negroes. The Lovings’ white neighbors have grown accustomed to the marriage, and they encounter hostile stares only when they venture away. “It makes me want to ask them what the hell they are staring at,” he says. “I haven’t yet, but once we are allowed to live here legally, I will.”
Virginia is one of 18 states where marriage between Negroes and white persons are forbidden by law. Judge Leon M. Bazile, who originally sentenced the Lovings, later wrote, “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 Lovings’ lawyers, Philip Hirschkop and Bernard S. Cohen, will base their appeal on the claim the Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statutes violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. The State insists that the 14th Amendment exempts anti-miscegenation statutes from its coverage, and that there is no constitutionally protected right of a free choice of a spouse in marriage. Thus, the first issue the Supreme Court will face, if it takes the case, is whether the constitutional rights of the individual override the state’s right to control marriages under the state’s police powers.
Richard and Mildred Loving realize that their fight will undoubtedly affect the lives of many other people if they win; there are probably a half million mixed marriages in the U.S. at present. But the Lovings do not look upon themselves as champions of civil rights.
“We have thought about other people, but we are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones,” says Richards. “We are doing it for us — because we want to live here.”