76: Loving

Loving was released in 2016 and depicts the story of Richard and Mildred Loving as they struggled against racial barriers. Their case, Loving v Virginia, would go all the way to the Supreme Court and be the catalyst to legalizing interracial marriages in the United States today.

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Episode Transcript

In February of 1967, NASA launched the Lunar Orbiter 3 into space. That same year, The Beatles took a break from touring to release their eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Then, later in the year, Rolling Stone magazine published its very first issue with the image of John Lennon on the cover.

As you now know, it’d go on to become a popular magazine.

Fast forward 49 years and in 2016, Rolling Stone writer Peter Travers would review an alien movie starring Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton called Midnight Special. In his review, Peter explained that, “With only four films, the Arkansas-born [Jeff] Nichols, 37, already ranks with the best American directors of his generation.”

Jeff Nichols, of course, being the man who wrote and directed Midnight Special, the film that Peter was reviewing.

Fast forward one more year, and Jeff Nichols has now written and directed five films. His fifth film simply called Loving finds Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton working with Jeff Nichols again in a film that takes us all the way back to 1967—50 years ago as of this recording in 2017.

As crazy as it may be to think about, it was only 50 years ago when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Richard and Mildred Loving’s marriage, thereby breaking racial barriers in the states where, up until that moment, interracial marriages were illegal.

So let’s take a few moments now to learn more about the remarkable story told in the movie Loving.

The true story behind Loving

The movie begins with Ruth Negga’s version of Mildred Jeter sitting alongside Joel Edgerton’s version of Richard Loving on a front porch. She breaks the news to him. She’s pregnant. You can feel the tension as she waits to see how he’ll react.

After a brief moment, a smile crosses Richard’s face as the thought of being a father sinks in.

While the movie doesn’t mention when this happens, this plot line is truth. But there’s a pretty big difference here the movie doesn’t really mention.

That big difference has to do with Mildred’s heritage. The movie doesn’t really talk much about it, but because she’s played by Ruth Negga in the film—who is an Ethiopian-Irish actress—the natural implication might be that Mildred was of African-American descent.

In truth, Mildred Jeter had both African-American and European ancestry, but the heritage she identified with herself was Native American. More specifically, she was part Cherokee and part Rappahannock. Not to get too far ahead of our story, but in a 2004 interview with Time magazine, Mildred blatantly said, “I am not black. I have no black ancestry. I am Indian-Rappahannock. I told the people so when they came to arrest me.”

On the other hand, Richard Loving was of Irish and English descent. He was born on October 29th, 1933 in a small town called Central Point. That’s just north of Richmond, Virginia.

Mildred was also born in Central Point, but her birthday came five years, eight months and 23 days later—on July 22nd, 1939.

Growing up in a racially-segregated town, Richard visited Mildred’s home as a teenager when she attended an all-black school. At first she didn’t really like him—she thought he was too arrogant—but eventually they became friends. It wasn’t a fast thing. In fact, their friendship blossomed into love over the course of seven years.

One thing led to another and by the time Mildred was 18, she found herself pregnant.

So while the movie doesn’t give any sort of timeline on when the opening scene takes place, we know from history that Richard and Mildred had their first son, Sidney, on January 27th, 1957.

After this, the movie correctly shows that after finding out that she was pregnant, Richard decided to propose. Of course, we don’t know if it happened exactly as the movie shows, but the basic gist is correct.

Back in the movie, after proposing, Richard and Mildred go to Washington D.C. to get married. Richard poses it to Mildred as being something that’ll just be faster to do there.

The movie doesn’t really go into too much detail here, but the truth is that Richard knew he couldn’t marry Mildred in Virginia. The reason for that being the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was the law that made interracial marriages illegal in Virginia.

So he and Mildred traveled the 80 miles or so south from Central Point to Washington D.C.

That’s about 130 kilometers, or roughly a two hour drive today. I say today because most highways in the U.S. weren’t built until the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and since this was in 1958, it’s very likely that they didn’t travel 65 or 70 mph down a highway from Virginia to Washington D.C.

So that 80 miles or 130 kilometers would’ve taken longer to travel and been a bigger deal than it is today.

On June 2nd, 1958, Richard and Mildred were married in Washington D.C. After saying their vows, just like the movie shows, the couple returned home to Virginia. It was, all in all, a rather uneventful affair for a wedding.

In the movie, after they get married, the next major plot point occurs when the local law enforcement shows up to arrest Richard and Mildred. According to the movie, this happens late at night with the cops sneaking up to and bursting into the Loving’s home while they’re sleeping.

Well, we already talked a little bit about this earlier, but sadly, this is true. We don’t really know how they knew, but most historians believe someone in town must’ve tipped off the local sheriff to Richard and Mildred’s marriage.

At about 2:00 in the morning on July 11th, over a month after Richard and Mildred had returned home to begin their lives as a happily married couple, the sheriff burst into their home and arrested the two.

As a side note, the movie gets what happens very accurate. Down to Joel Edgerton’s version of Richard pointing to the marriage certificate hanging on the wall—something the real Richard did after the sheriff demanded who Mildred was, to which she replied, “I’m his wife,” and Richard pointed to the certificate.

Part of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that made interracial marriages illegal also made it illegal for white residents of Virginia to get married outside of the state and then move back to Virginia.

Unfortunately, the law enforcement did exactly what we saw in the movie. Richard and Mildred were thrown in jail.

As a little side note, Mildred was pregnant again at this point with who would be their second son, Donald, who would be born on October 8th, 1958.

Just like the movie shows, Richard was allowed to post bail the very next day after the arrest. Mildred, however, wasn’t allowed to leave and she spent multiple days in jail. So the movie is pretty accurate in this depiction.

Now this is just my speculation here, but I’d also doubt that the sheriff treated a pregnant Mildred with much respect or care for the fact that she was pregnant.

Back in the movie, Richard and Mildred are given an ultimatum by the judge in Virginia. Basically, plead guilty to breaking the law and you’ll have the choice of either dissolving your marriage or leave the state of Virginia. Leave your home. Leave your family.

I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like to be given such a choice.

But, according to the movie, Richard and Mildred plead guilty and opt for leaving their parents, siblings and other family behind and with their own small family move to Washington D.C., where they can live like any other married couple.

This is true.

The movie is also true when it depicts Judge Bazile, who’s played by David Jensen, explaining that he wouldn’t send them to prison for as long as they didn’t return to Virginia together. How long was their banishment from their home state? Just like the movie shows: 25 years.

All of this happened on January 6th, 1959, so just over seven months into their marriage and their love went through a test so strong that…well, let’s just say there’s a lot of other marriages out there that were around a lot longer and still crumbled under a lot less pressure.

As he was issuing his verdict, Judge Bazile now-infamously said something to show just how racist he was. This is a quote from his sentencing:

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.

Then, later he told the Lovings, “As long as you live you will be known as a felon.”

Oh, how wrong that judge would be…of course, they didn’t know it at the time.

And so it was that the Loving family moved to Washington D.C. Richard, Mildred and their children. Time passed.

The movie doesn’t show how much time is passing, but there’s a moment where one of the Loving children gets hit by a car. After that, Ruth Negga’s version of Mildred breaks—she’s had enough. She was born and raised a country girl, and she can’t live in the city anymore.

Something the movie doesn’t really mention is that even though they lived in Washington D.C., both Richard and Mildred made trips back home to visit their families in Virginia. They just couldn’t make the trip together without getting arrested.

While the events and specific conversations are dramatized, of course, again the overall gist here is very accurate.

It was after an unfortunate accident with one of their kids that Richard and Mildred decided they couldn’t live in the city. Fortunately, the Loving children weren’t significantly injured, but it was the last straw as it were.

There’s a moment in the movie where we see one of Mildred’s cousins recommend that she write to Bobby Kennedy, who was the Attorney General of the United States at that time.

We don’t know if that’s exactly how it happened, but that’s actually true.

The movie doesn’t mention a timeline here, but it was the actions that Mildred saw on TV that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prompted Mildred to write to Kennedy. She wrote her letter in 1963, and basically asked if the new law were to get enacted, would it be able to help?

The reply came that, unfortunately, no, the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t help in their case. But they recommended that the Lovings get in contact with the ACLU to see if they can help.

The ACLU is the American Civil Liberties Union, by the way.

That’s when another couple of characters came into the picture, exactly like the movie shows. They are two lawyers from the ACLU who agreed to work on the case free of charge for the Lovings.

Those two lawyers were Bernie Cohen, who’s played by Nick Kroll in the movie, and Phil Hirschkop, who’s played by Jon Bass in the film.

It was those two lawyers who went to work on an uphill battle against the state of Virginia’s horrible laws. Although, really, it was Bernie Cohen who took the lead since he joined the case first, in June of 1963, and Phil joined later on after he was done with another civil rights case in Mississippi he was working on.

It wasn’t a fast process by any means. But that process was helped along, just like the movie shows, by an article by Life magazine that published on March 18th, 1966.

In the movie, Michael Shannon plays the photographer from Life who comes to photograph the Loving family. His real name was Grey Villet, and you can see a lot of the real photos he took online. Life magazine isn’t around anymore, but they were bought out by Time magazine, so you can find some of Grey’s photos of the real Richard and Mildred Loving on Time’s website (you can find that link above).

That article was published with the headline of: “The Crime of Being Married”, which is something else the movie shows correctly. Thanks in part to that article’s popularity, the Lovings case started to shoot up the chain in the legal system.

By now, if you’ve gotten the sense that the film is very accurate in its portrayal of the events, you’d be correct. So it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the way the film ends is also pretty accurate to the true events.

Just like the movie shows, the case of Loving v Virginia made its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

On April 10th, 1967, the case officially began when the U.S. Supreme Court heard opening remarks.

The movie doesn’t show what happens in the courtroom itself, and this makes sense because it is true that the Lovings didn’t go to the hearing. So because of the way the film looks at things from Richard and Mildred’s perspective, it’d make sense to stay out of the courtroom, too.

Oh, and yes, the real Richard Loving did tell Bernie Cohen to pass along a very simple message to the U.S. Supreme Court. And Mr. Cohen did just that, in something that would become the most famous quote from inside the courtroom that made its way out. This is the actual audio from Bernie Cohen’s statement in the Supreme Court:

No matter how we articulate this, no matter which theory of the due process clause or which emphasis we attach to, no one can articulate it better than Richard Loving when he said to me, ‘Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.

Overall, the case took about two months.

On June 2nd, 1967, Richard and Mildred celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary. We don’t really know how they celebrated.

What we do know is that just ten days after their ninth anniversary, they got the present they’d been wanting all along.

This is a portion of the statement that was issued by Chief Justice Earl Warren on June 12th, 1967:

Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U. S. 535, 316 U. S. 541 (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, 125 U. S. 190 (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.

These convictions must be reversed.

It is so ordered.

Finally…Richard and Mildred Loving were legally allowed to remain in Virginia, a happy, married couple.

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision, Virginia and 15 other states that had outlawed interracial marriages effectively had those laws reversed.

The movie doesn’t really talk much about what happened after the decision, other than to show Richard and Mildred finally getting to build their home in Virginia. Then with some text on screen, the movie says that Richard died in a car accident seven years after the ruling.

Sadly, this is true.

The landmark decision by the Supreme Court had further implications that the movie doesn’t mention, though. It started, of course, with the Lovings themselves. Almost two months to the day, on August 13th, 1967, Roman Johnston, a black man, married Leona Boyd, a white woman, got married in Norfolk, Virginia. They were the first interracial couple to be married in Virginia after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

But they certainly weren’t the last.

For some reason, many of the key moments in the Lovings life happened in June. Richard and Mildred were married on June 2nd, 1958. Nine years later, on June 12th, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Eight years after that, on June 29th, 1975, Richard and Mildred were driving when a drunk driver hit their car.

Mildred survived. Sadly, Richard didn’t. He was only 41 years old.

Mildred continued to live a quiet life until, on May 2nd, 2008, she passed away in the home she shared with the love of her life in Central Point, Virginia.

Although Richard and Mildred didn’t seem to be out to make massive changes in the United States, their love and devotion to each other was enough to prove to everyone that marriage is about that—love—and not race. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, and this sparked massive changes.

Before she passed, Mildred Loving issued a statement on June 12th, 2007 entitled Loving For All:

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington D.C. in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.

We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the “crime” of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed.

The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared:

“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.”

He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile. We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn’t have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” a “basic civil right.”

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all.

That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.

Do you remember the dates of the Loving v Virginia ruling in the Supreme Court? Opening hearings started on April 10th, 1967, with the decision issued on June 12th, 1967.

Well, this statement from Mildred, along with the 1967 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court was one that a lot of people used as a basis for yet another case in front of the Supreme Court.

This time the case opened on April 28th, 2015. On June 26th, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court yet again ruled marriage as a fundamental right in the Obergefell v Hodges case. This time it wasn’t for interracial marriages like Richard and Mildred, but instead same-sex marriages.

Yet again…love won the day.

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