Before June of 1967, sixteen states still prohibited interracial marriage, including Virginia, the home of Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and his wife, Mildred Loving, a woman of African-American and Native-American descent.
Nine years prior, in June 1958, the couple traveled to Washington, D.C. -- where interracial marriage was legal -- to get married. When they returned home, however, they were arrested and sentenced to one year in jail for violating the state's Racial Integrity Act.
According to court documents, the trial judge suspended the Lovings' sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that they leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years. He stated in an opinion that:
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 marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
After spending five years in Washington, where Richard worked as a bricklayer and where the couple had their three children -- Peggy, Donald and Sidney -- they sought out the help of a young attorney named Bernard Cohen who was volunteering at the time with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Lovings requested that Cohen ask the Caroline County, Virginia judge to reconsider his decision, a move that would lead to one of the civil rights movement's most pivotal moments: the legalization of interracial marriage.
"They were very simple people, who were not interested in winning any civil rights principle," Cohen told NPR in an interview marking the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the conviction of Richard and Mildred Loving.
"They just were in love with one another and wanted the right to live together as husband and wife in Virginia, without any interference from officialdom. When I told Richard that this case was, in all likelihood, going to go to the Supreme Court of the United States, he became wide-eyed and his jaw dropped," Cohen said.
In June 1967, the court unanimously declared Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 unconstitutional and ended all race-based marriage bans in the U.S.
During Richard and Mildred's epic "Loving v. Virgina" legal battle, LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet traveled to Virginia to cover the case, but his photos offered a more intimate look at the couple and their family, their dedication to each other, daily life in Virginia and the countryside they cherished.
Villet's photos were uncovered by director Nancy Buirski during the filming of her upcoming documentary, “The Loving Story,” set to debut on February 14 on HBO, and will be on view at the International Center of Photography in New York City from January 20 through May 6, 2012.
About a month before my father died, a long-held question spilled out of my ten-year-old mouth. “Daddy, why do you hate colored people so much and love Mama?” The silence that filled the kitchen where my mother was cooking blocked out the evening news blaring from the television. It was another nightly report about the blacks’ grim battle for freedom from racial segregation. The March on Washington and rise of black power had energized their struggle, making for significant advances, but the struggle continued. My father’s routine rants against the “coloreds” had unexpectedly pulled the naïve question from my throat where it had been lodged for some time. My mother began to cry. I looked up into his usually loving face and saw cold silent anger. Somehow, I had intuited that it would be this way. For the first time in my life I was sent to bed without supper and told to stay upstairs until morning. My parents never brought up our exchange and several weeks later my father died of a heart attack in front of me. Some forty years later I asked my mother if she recalled that event and she looked at me levelly, “Why, yes, I certainly do.” The cold indignation in her eyes and my silence formed an unspoken agreement that we would not revisit the incident that took place in the kitchen in early 1967. In the intervening decades, however, I had given it much thought, peeling away the layers of my confusion about my experiences in a racially mixed household where black, white, and red shaped our familial relations, individual identities, and confused interpretations of how race had come to define us.
In retrospect it seems that both race and color were at the center of our family relations. My mother’s darkness was the basis of a terrible insecurity that played out in her comments about her children and about other dark-skinned people. Simultaneously, my father’s open racism against blacks contradicted his seeming blindness to my mother’s insecurity-inducing darkness. I recall my father’s special song for my mother. “Portrait of my Love,” a syrupy popular tune suggesting [End Page 51] that extraordinary beauty cannot be captured by the artist’s brush. Their romanticized fraught defiance of convention became swept up in the growing momentum of the civil rights movement. Historically invisible dark people filled television screens, as well as white-sheeted Klansmen, water cannons, billy clubs, and jeering white crowds. Under the circumstances, my mother’s insecurity about her darkness intensified. Events taking place outside our family charged the dynamics among us. We all became actors on her stage, which she directed relentlessly to buffer herself against a pervasive racism that could easily and frequently did sweep her up in the net of all denigrated colored peoples.
My parents’ relationship married my mother’s ever-present awareness of her dark skin to my father’s insecurities about his origins and driven desire to escape them. He sought membership in the American middle class and spent his life accumulating what he believed were the essential requirements: comportment, a steady job, children, a home, and car. My father’s near-obsession with “good manners” and appropriate appearances was most evident in our relationship. My little brother and ally was a mute, invisible actor throughout our time with both parents, while I received the bounty of attention due a Southern princess. My parents insisted on tightly controlling how I wore my hair and how I was clothed. Trained as an excellent, creative seamstress, my mother made many of my clothes. My occasional effort to follow a fashion trend—one year it was empire waist summer dresses—was usually quashed by my father. (“Jean, that thing makes her look pregnant. Take it back.” I was probably all of eight or nine.) White anklets and some version of Mary Janes rounded out my outfits. As the only girl in the family with two brothers I seemed an inescapable target of monitoring and molding into Southern perfection. My mother was uncharacteristically unquestioning and...